Gretel and Hansel
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
Fairy tales have an inherent darkness about them. Take away the moral and point them in the right direction and they can easily turn into horror. Granted, if you miss on the direction, you are not left with much. Such is the case with Gretel and Hansel, a horror reimagining of the Brothers Grimm story “Hansel and Gretel.” It has the makings of an interesting short film though, stretched out to 82 minutes (without the end credits), its impact is greatly diluted. The music is good and the setting is consistently creepy, but the sense of mood is hurt by a story that fails to go anywhere. The filmmakers knew what kind of movie they wanted, and there are some successful pieces. Still, it drags quite a bit, perking up just before a rushed and underwhelming climax.
Teenage Gretel and her little brother Hansel are forced to fend for themselves when they are kicked out of their home by their mother. Wandering in the woods, tired and hungry, they happen upon a house with a feast ready on the dining room table. After they are invited in by the friendly old woman who lives there, it soon becomes apparent that evil is lurking.
This is a production built on atmosphere, not plot. It sets up some obvious feminist themes at the beginning (hence the name switcheroo in the title), then coasts on them the rest of the way. I like the fact it neither shows nor tells for most of its runtime; we can sense it somehow. The problem is it never really has anything to show us. It keeps everything on a slow burn, before suddenly, wildly, accelerating for a conclusion that does not feel like a payoff. Gretel’s arc is especially unsatisfying, like the screenplay is missing a few steps for her. The story contains a promising central idea (using the witch as a metaphor for Gretel’s coming-of-age), but it is either too long (again, a very good short film is hidden inside) or it needed more time to develop its final act.
The production design, however, is on point. Following an early section looking at the myth of the witch and how awful this world is for the title characters, the house appears to them like a gift from above. Things seem hopeless until Hansel smells cake. It stands out in the woods, wide and black, surrounded by dead grass, with a lonely slide in front of it and an unsettling yellow light leaking out from the windows. We do not need ominous establishing shots to know the kids should run far away from it. There is just something wrong about it. For instance, where is all this food coming from? The wide shots of the table filled with pastries, bread and different types of succulent meats is oddly disturbing. I was hungry as I watched Gretel and Hansel, yet I did not want to eat that food. The way it implies evil long before it makes it literal is pretty impressive. That comes down to the look of the house, the lighting and the set design. It is enticing for someone truly desperate, but look hard enough and it is clear things are not as they seem.
That stuff was effective, as was the performance by Sophia Lillis as Gretel. She is understated, understanding much, saying little. There is a moment toward the end where she stares, listening to the witch talking, and you can see her situation dawning on her, that almost makes up for how little has really happened leading up to it. The slow burn works for a short time. Eventually, it needs something to build to. Instead, it burns itself out, ending on a whimper. The story, the far too on-the-nose narration by Lillis and several repetitive beats in the middle portion, not to mention the hasty conclusion, make this a disappointment. Regardless, the creativity in the production brings this much closer to working than I anticipated.
2½ out of 5
Sophia Lillis as Gretel
Sammy Leakey as Hansel
Alice Krige as Holda
Directed by Osgood Perkins
Written by Rob Hayes