Gretel and Hansel is a film made for an incredibly niche subset of people but marketed like the next Annabelle. The ads make it look like a cheap, dime-a-dozen horror flick, but the actual meat of the film feels far more in the art-horror style of Robert Egger’s The Witch, just without the substance. So, if you’re a fan of slow-burn, intimate, art-house horror with an ending that plainly explains simplistic themes at your feet, you’ll love it. If not, I have bad news.
A twist on the classic tale Hansel and Gretel, director Oz Perkins and writer Rob Hayes create a movie that feels a lot like The Witch decided to set up the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the last five minutes. Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and her brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) wander the woods after being cast from their family, a dark blight covering their hometown. A hunter recommends they track down some lumbermen, though they are shortly sidetracked by the fable’s classic witch, albeit with a twist for Gretel that feels so natural, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this version of the story existed long ago. Forty minutes later, the movie ends with Gretel reading aloud the film’s themes while elsewhere a character hoists an ax like they just awoke Thor within themselves.
It’s clear that, at one point, Gretel had some weird things to say. Early on the film repeatedly references virginity and purity, engraining those themes within the tale. A few minutes later, they’re chased from a house by, what I assume is, a vampire. But it doesn’t matter what chased them. Just like the virginal references, all the early set-up and characters vanish as soon as Gretel and Hansel set foot in the woods. From there, the film slowly introduces new ideas that simmer in the background, though the resulting payoffs feel lukewarm, spelled out with little room for interpretation. The newly introduced themes are broad and impersonal, remarkably at odds with the intimacy of the cinematography.
Far and away the best feature of Gretel is the cinematography. It oozes with reverence for Egger’s Witch, with long, deliberate shots focused on the emotional states of the characters. There’s subtlety in the camera, straying away from the rapid movements of action and quick cuts of horror. The few scenes the where camera noticeably moves, the focus remains on the characters, backgrounds sliding past in a haze. The camera work is incredibly engaging, demanding attention while the story, though not terrible, allows the film to drift out of focus.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with the story, but there’s also nothing particularly right about it. The subtlety of the film’s twist is flawless, seamlessly integrating with the original story to create something as natural as the original tale. And yet, it also creates the feeling that this has been done before. The perfection in which the twist integrates results in an hour-and-a-half film that feels endlessly long. Even with the brand-new story beats, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you know where the story is going.
There’s a market for Gretel and Hansel. It’s a film that does a lot to differentiate itself from the endless parade of jump-scare horror and action retellings of fairy tales. Unfortunately, the long, slow-burn horror will do a lot to turn off casual audiences while the ending will leave the art-horror crowd with little to chew on after the film has ended. What’s left is a film made for those looking for something different, those who endlessly consume the craft and will appreciate the subtler points even if the film at large fails to deliver. Gretel and Hansel may not be a great movie, but it is one deserving of respect.