by Jack Miller ’21
Oz Perkins, the writer/director behind “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” and “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” continues his streak of divisive horror films with “Gretel & Hansel,” a retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ classic german folklore “Hansel & Gretel.” The film follows the familiar story of the two young siblings who, after being exiled from their home, come across a cannibalistic witch in the guise of a hospitable old woman. This adaptation differs from its source in that Gretel, played by “IT” star Sophia Lillis, takes the main stage over her little brother in an updated story focusing on female independence in patriarchal society.
Even with its attempts to transcend its fairy tale roots, writer Rob Hayes’ screenplay feels lifeless from the start. The first half plays out just as the folklore does, only the narrative is stretched to tedium to fit the film’s feature length runtime. The two protagonists are explored with the same amount of depth they were in the short story—keyword: short—leaving the audience with little to be invested in. Lillis does her best to make Gretel a likeable lead, but she’s written so shallow and her dialogue is so drab and stiff that it’s hard to care about her or anything happening around her. By the time the siblings stumble upon the ominous witch house and the horror finally kicks in, the film is nearly halfway done and there’s nobody interesting to sympathize with or be scared for.
The latter half does take a few turns from the source’s narrative, but they’re predictable and vastly undeveloped, making for a finale as uninteresting as what came before it. Hayes tells a two-page story in 90 minutes and he leaves the audience little room for interpretation or analysis. The female-empowerment riff is far too simplistic to give the film any real feeling of purpose and it’s been explored from similar angles in far more meaningful and creative ways in other horror films from the past 5 years.
Perkins’ direction does little to service the already dull and script. His vision mimics the theatrics of other modern horror auteurs such as Robert Eggers and Ari Aster but fails to replicate what makes their works special. For how showy it is, not much about Perkins’ filmmaking communicates the atmosphere or subtext necessary to make the script come to life. The symmetrical wide-lens photography, however pretty it may be, is overdone to monotony and fails to evoke the tone it strives for. Robin Coudert’s synth-heavy soundtrack isn’t awful on its own, but it sounds like it belongs to an entirely different film. Fortunately, there’s some inspired production design and eerie imagery that manage to save the film from complete worthlessness, but they end up feeling more like wasted opportunities than anything else.
The sparse traces of what “Gretel & Hansel” has to say have already been said in much better films. If an allegorical horror film that uses witchcraft as a device to tell a story about female independence sounds appealing to you, I’d recommend Robert Eggers’ “The VVitch.” Thank me later.