By Andrew Rodden
I somehow avoided the marketing for Oz Perkins’ 2020 horror film “Gretel & Hansel,” which I found to be quite refreshing. It is rare to go into the theater without having already been inundated with trailers, posters, and movie-themed cereal boxes, so I was relieved to see this film without any prior expectations. I ended up surprised at how unique and creepy the visual design of the film was, and I was genuinely impressed by the set design and overall art direction.
However, I quickly realized that was mostly fluff, because the other elements of the film simply did not hold up in comparison. “Gretel & Hansel” tries to balance the two types of horror movie that currently drive the genre: artistically inspired movies from Robert Eggers or Jordan Peele, and “The Conjuring” or “Insidious” type of movies that mainly entertain with one too many jump scares. The film’s acting, sound design, structure, and pacing are generally ineffective, and these flaws can be attributed to bad direction and bad screenwriting, as well as a conflicted idea of what the film should be.
“Gretel & Hansel” follows the journey of Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and her younger brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey), who have been kicked out of their house by their mother. They are forced to navigate the woodlands of an undisclosed location in search of food, shelter, and a job. I am curious as to why this movie is not set in Germany, as that is the setting of the original folktale. “Hansel” and “Gretel” are German names, after all, so the Irish and American accents, and presumably Irish setting, are disorienting given the context of the source material.
The siblings stumble upon pentagrams, upside-down crosses, and hallucinogenic mushrooms as they ultimately find their way to an old lady’s home deep in the forest. Unsurprisingly, this woman (Alice Krige) is in fact an evil witch, quickly realized by audience members while the movie characters wait until it’s too late to catch on. This dramatic irony proves to be ineffective — instead of rooting for the characters, you are left painfully asking why they don’t simply leave.
Building tension is crucial for horror films, which is why filmmakers should not wait to build tension until the post-production or even production stages of the filmmaking process — they should start with the screenplay. Sure, you can rely on string instruments and dark corridors, but the best-of-the-best build tension into the very structure of the story. The structure of “Gretel & Hansel” is not effective in building suspense, which isn’t helped by poor pacing. When the film isn’t rushing through essential exposition via flashback and voice over, it crawls through scenes filled with clunky dialogue. I respect the effort that went into making the dialogue sound historic but given the strong lack of a sense of place, this historical dialect comes across as mostly unnecessary fluff, not doing much to propel the story.
Having a weak script makes the job of the actor all the more difficult, so regardless of the script the director must be prepared to guide performers in a way that pulls out interesting and exciting performances. Perkins did not do so in this movie, a disappointing revelation due to the visible potential of the young actors.
“Gretel & Hansel” is a movie that is hard to hate, but just as difficult to love. By attempting to balance both high intensity scares with a spooky atmosphere, audiences are left with a confused movie, even if it looks great. It’s hard to recommend this film, especially when movies like “Uncut Gems” (2019) and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019) are back in theaters for a while, but if anything, it’s worth it for the cool visuals and 87-minute runtime.