Is it possible to appreciate, respect, and even recommend something… without exactly liking it? Because that’s where I’m at with Gretel & Hansel, a movie that is outstanding in nearly all of its parts even while it just misses the mark as a whole. I don’t think this will go down as the best horror movie of the year, but I’d be willing to bet actual dollars on this one being the best looking one at the very least. The performances are gripping, the story is thoughtful, and I can honestly say that, for the entire 2-hr runtime, I was utterly enthralled — but I wasn’t even once anxious or apprehensive, let alone frightened. Perhaps it’s all a matter of your own expectations going in, because if you’re looking for proper shocks you’ll probably be disappointed. What Gretel & Hansel offers instead is a mood, something deliberate and dark and a little bit dreamlike, that mesmerizes and unnerves but also keeps you at a distance — the same way hearing “Once Upon A Time” at the beginning of a fairy tale saps the story of all immediacy.
Of course, maybe that’s intentional. The movie is, after all, an adaptation of the classic German folktale made famous by the Brothers Grimm, and it keeps a lot of the essential details more or less intact. Two siblings, sister Gretel (IT’s Sophia Lillis) and little brother Hansel (Sammy Leakey), are sent into the woods to fend for themselves when their mother is no longer able to provide for them. They wander until they are on the verge of starvation — and then they encounter the strangely sweet-smelling house of a witch (Alice Krige, the original Star Trek Borg Queen herself). There is even an oven of sorts, and a bit of cannibalism, but the movie is more interested in the areas where it expands beyond the bounds of the original pages. If the fairy tale was a warning to children against trusting strangers, then Gretel & Hansel is a meditation on the cost of power and abundance. Gretel is a shrewd girl who knows all too well that nothing in life comes without a price — the only question is whether the cost is something you can bear to pay. Before being kicked out of her home, Gretel has other options for her survival: there’s a job for a wealthy lecher that would surely cost her virginity, or she could enter a convent and be forced to abandon her brother. Compared to those choices, she may as well take her chances in the woods — and it’s this uncompromising pride and intelligence that makes Gretel more than just another target to the witch. Though the children initially offer to do chores in exchange for food and shelter, Gretel quickly becomes more of a mystical mentee than a maid to the old woman. For the first time in her life she has the potential of holding power for herself rather than submitting to the powers of others — it’s just a matter of what price she’s willing to pay for it. Who will be exploited for her new sense of privilege?
As Gretel, Lillis is mesmerizing, part heroine and part cipher (though the voiceover narration she’s saddled with gets to be a bit much), while Krige managers to cut straight through the make-up and prosthetics to bring a wry, snappy humanity to the witch. It doesn’t hurt that the camera loves them, and they’re shot not as characters existing in a space but as features of that space, no different from the ever-present flickering candlelight or the looming trees. The cinematography from Galo Olivares, who previously collaborated on Roma, is simply beautiful, and it’s the perfect compliment to the almost glacial pace director Osgood Perkins (I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House) sets for the story. The movie is so unhurried that it almost actively prevents any hint of tension or suspense from creeping in, but it’s so pretty that it keeps you engaged regardless — at least until the climax, when the lack of real stakes becomes inescapable.
This is a PG-13 horror film, not unlike last month’s Black Christmas, and the lack of blood or big scares isn’t really a problem. The eerie mood makes up for the lack of eerie substance most of the time, with an assist from some well-timed body parts and a soundtrack layered with gurgles. The bigger issue is that the new themes the film teases out of the material ultimately add up to nothing more than interesting thought experiments. Where Black Christmas explored rape culture to sharpen its focus, Gretel & Hansel gets lost in the woods of its own goals. It may flirt with disenfranchisement and female empowerment, but it doesn’t have anything to really say about them. Instead of lending weight to the action they compete against it, until you realize that though the deepened relationship between Gretel and the witch may be symbolically interesting, it has actually made the final showdown a bit of a letdown.