Mainstream cinemas rarely take any risk when they are compiling their film selection, but once in a while a film ends up on the roster that doesn't really belong there. Gretel & Hansel, Oz Perkins' latest, is such a film. Audience scores paint a dire picture and the critiques have been pretty brutal, but from the moment it was announced I've been looking forward to this film. Perkins has a unique, signature style and I'm always in for a good fantasy/horror blend. I was quite excited to catch this one on the big screen and I'm happy to say that it even managed to exceed my expectations.
Oz Perkins has been slowly working himself up in the movie business. The road from landing his first minor acting part (portraying the younger version of Psycho's Norman Bates, played by his dad, Anthony) to writing and directing a film with broad international reach has been a long one, but looking at where he is today it feels as if he's been making the right choices. Perkins didn't just leverage the fame of his father's name to get him some cushy job in show business, instead he worked hard to establish his own brand of cinema. Films that really aren't all that commercial, but are backed by big, commercial institutes nonetheless.
Gretel & Hansel is a film with commercial potential, at least on paper. It's a mixture of several fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, that were refitted into a single narrative. If you consider the collected Grimm stories to be one of the oldest franchises alive, you can probably begin to understand the thought process behind the commercial backing of this film. But Perkins' vision is much closer in atmosphere to the original Grimm tales (which were actually ... grim) and his minimalist approach is not something that strokes well with commercial movie-going audiences. Well illustrated by a dad and his two toddlers walking into the screening, hoping to see a fantasy film, and walking out again 10 minutes later.
The plot follows Gretel and Hansel, cast out by their single mother who can't make ends meet anymore. After wandering through the forest for a while, they end up at the cottage of an old woman. She decides to take the children in, but she's clearly hiding something from them and no doubt her kindness will come at a cost. She sees a darkness in Gretel that she wants to exploit, but for that she has to get rid of Hansel first. What follows is a not-so-subtle stand-off between Gretel and her host, one that differs quite a bit from the original tale.
Perkins relies a lot on the cinematography to establish atmosphere. The film is clearly in love with its bleak, dark setting and uses every chance it gets to play around with the lighting and colors to add an extra layer of dread. Special effects are kept to a minimum, but when they are used they look convincing, even spectacular. But the most striking visuals are driven by the sleeker and more modern architectural designs, which don't quite belong in their fairy tale setting, but don't look out of place either. It makes for a stunning looking film, that thrives on its visuals to make an impact.
The music is equally essential to the atmosphere. It is rather minimal and doesn't wander too far from the typical horror sound, but every single note (and even the absence of notes) feels deliberate. The soundtrack is a little jarring and uneasy, just enough to keep you on your toes, but never so much that it would alienate large parts of the audience. It's always nice to see a director that treats the music as an integral part of the experience and Perkins make a great case for the fact that even a more expected horror soundtrack can still be extremely effective.
The cast is appropriately small, with most of the weight landing on the shoulders of Sophia Lillis (as Gretel) and Alice Krige (as the old witch). The both of them are absolutely tremendous, delivering amazing performances even though they had remarkably little to work with. Their parts are quite one-dimensional in nature, still they managed to create very vivid and full-bodied characters out of them. The secondary cast is limited and restricted to just a handful of scenes, but every single performance manages to add a little extra to the film.
Should you think that the reversal of the titular names (the fairy tale is generally known as Hansel & Gretel) is a sign of an overtly feminist vision, worry not. While the film undeniably opts for a more explicit female angle, it gels well with the story and it doesn't feel forced at all. Nor is there any finger waving or whiny moralistic nonsense to wade through, this is just an adaptation told through the eyes of Gretel. If more people would follow Perkins' example, I'm sure there'd be a lot less fuss about getting more women front and center in the movie business.
Oz Perkins made a wonderful film. It's not a slavish copy of the original stories, but it still pays proper homage to the tone and atmosphere the Grimm brothers put into their fairy tales. Gretel & Hansel is an extremely atmospheric film, with a strong cast, amazing cinematography and an exemplary use of its score. A film that has everything to put Perkins on the map, though I'm afraid a lot of people will find themselves scratching their head because it's not exactly mainstream cinema material. That sucks if all you can stomach is Disney films, for others this film should come as a very welcome surprise.