Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
GRETEL & HANSEL
Rated PG-13, 87 minutes
Directed by: Oz Perkins
As director Osgood Perkins’ GRETEL & HANSEL begins to unspool, it becomes increasing clear why he’s placed the girl’s name first. It’s not solely because its biggest draw is rising teen star Sophia Lillis (of the IT films and NANCY DREW’s most recent cinematic outing). It’s because Perkins and screenwriter Rob Hayes have built a firmly feminist foundation for their spin on the infamous Grimm fairy tale about two lost kids and an old lady with nefarious notions. This newly refreshed and refurbished narrative is rooted in witchy ways, cultivating a highly evocative coming-of-age creepfest. Without sounding like a pejorative, it’s gateway horror done right.
Hundreds of years ago, and many miles away, Gretel (Lillis) and her younger inquisitive brother Hansel (Sammy Leakey) formed an inseparable bond. Wherever she goes, he follows. They’ve grown up being told frightening folklore about a young girl in a pink bonnet with mystical powers – a story that’s both scared and prepared them for the cruel, unforgiving world. A famine has ravaged the land. And with food being scarce, their mentally tormented mother kicks them out of the family home. After the pair’s friendly encounter with a huntsman (Charles Babalola) who rescues, feeds and tells them about a job opportunity, Gretel and Hansel set off on their journey.
If it’s not enough that they have to battle through intense hunger and exhaustion, Gretel’s visions grow stronger each day. These inexplicable apparitions seem to be guiding the kids deep into the woods where they stumble upon a cottage smelling of cake (and bacon!). With its dramatic triangular roof pitch and European art-deco-inspired windows (very popular in Giallo films), this respite tempts them to enter. Hungry Hansel breaks in, unable to deny an irresistible bounty of food laid out on the table, and finds Holda (Alice Krige). She’s an elderly woman, clad entirely in black, with fingertips black like soot and gray hair covered in a black scarf. She invites them to stay with her, but for her own ulterior motives about which Gretel soon becomes enlightened.
Perkins is adept at crafting an inhospitable environment whilst at the same time making it look, sound and feel absolutely gorgeous. He employs simple techniques like framing and subject placement to mold tension and dispel a sense of unease. Their journey can be visually charted, specifically Gretel’s arc from childhood innocence, to control of her formerly latent prowess. The fog bank that practically pervades the landscape feels pressing and omnipresent, adding to the story’s bleak overtones. The dark, twisty trees of the forest loom and waver overhead, imprisoning these two children. Josh Ethier and Julia Wong’s slow, steadied dissolves augment the atmosphere filled with burgeoning dread. Justin M. Davey, Diego Perez and their sound design team gift the picture with an unsettling soundscape. Hearing the disembodied sounds of anguished children when Holda opens a box of trinkets is purposeful.
Hayes’ dialogue also leaves a stinging sensation. It’s cloaked in double meanings, lingering in the air like cold breath escaping the actors’ lungs. Lillis, Leakey and Krige transform it into multi-layered performances. Lillis and Krige are particularly exemplary in their work together. Their scenes have an entrancing quality and a real-world sharp snap. Jeremy Reed’s bewitching production designs cleverly symbolize the themes of centered feminine power with a triangle motif – such as the one the spooky Enchantress sits in, and the peephole Gretel peers through in the cabin. Robin Coudert’s (a.k.a. ROB) score, lush with throwback Moog synths, hammers home the story’s foreboding nature. And cinematographer Galo Olivares’ low lighting scheme provides the playground in which the spooks can haunt.
Akin to THE WITCH, Perkins and company have created an innovative, rehabilitated timeless tale.
GRETEL & HANSEL opens on January 31.