Gretel & Hansel (2020)

Of all the directors who contributed to the atmospheric moods & slow-building dread of the so-called “elevated horror” trend in the 2010s, Oz Perkins stands out to me as one of the most passionately dedicated to the cause. His mood-over-payoffs ethos worked better for me in The Blackcoat’s Daughter than it did in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, but between those two features I’ve been impressed with his patience & subtlety as a filmmaker (and an obviously genuine horror nerd). Specifically, Perkins’s attention to sound design in establishing a spooky atmosphere is near unmatched in his industry – something that’s difficult to fully soak in as an audience who can usually only access his films on streaming platforms instead of proper theatrical environments. Until now, the best chance most audiences had to fully appreciate one of Perkins’s atmospheric creep-outs was with an expensive pair of headphones in a dim room with no smartphones in reach, a ginormous feat of self-control. Gretel & Hansel, the director’s third feature, was his first to offer most audiences a chance to see one of his spooky mood pieces on a proper big screen—in a multiplex, even—thanks to its wide theatrical distribution through mainstream channels. Hilariously, Perkins used that opportunity to deliver his version of a fun popcorn flick, which turns out to be just as impenetrable & challenging as his no-budget “elevated horror” indies.

Gretel & Hansel feels like Oz Perkins having fun with his toys – fully cutting loose, letting his hair down, kicking off his shoes. Most audiences are still likely to find it a confounding bore. Despite the rigid narrative structure offered by its fairy tale source material, most of the film feels like watching a bunch of horror nerds dick around with expensive camera equipment in the woods. Its squared-off aspect ratio, handheld cinematography, stained-glass lighting hues, and synth-scored shots of ominous trees are incredibly exciting on an aesthetic level, but I’m not convinced that’s what general audiences are looking for in wide-distribution horror releases. By the time Perkins remembers to pack in the jump scares, familiar narrative structure, and heavy metal album art imagery that mainstream audiences expect from Horror at the multiplex, he’s already lost their attention. As someone who’s already on the hook for the director’s signature style of slow-moving, atmospheric indulgences, these intrusions of conventional bombast in an otherwise minimalist screen space felt absolutely wild – explosive even. By “elevated horror” standards, Gretel & Hansel is an absolute hoot, a total riot. I still imagine it’s going to be met by most audiences with a shrug & a yawn. Perkins’s vision of what constitutes a mainstream horror film creates a fascinating tension with the quiet restraint of his natural filmmaking tendencies; you just have to appreciate both sides of that divide to fully dig it.

A pair of siblings wander into the woods in search of work & food at the insistence of their parents, only to be adopted by an obvious witch who plans to cook & eat them. You know the rest. Except, you don’t, since Perkins (and screenwriter Rob Hayes) reshape & repurpose so many foundational elements of their Brothers Grimm source material that they might have well abandoned it entirely if it weren’t for the name recognition on the marquee (and its availability in the public domain). Much emphasis is laid on the siblings’ initial journey in the spooky woods – even pausing for a recreational mushroom trip just for funsies, as if this were a hangout comedy instead of a horror flick. Further, only one of the children appears to be a future menu item in the witch’s diet, while the other (played by IT breakout star Sophia Lillis) is effectively adopted as a witch in training. There’s also an entirely different fairy tale about The Girl in the Pink Hat that precedes & overlaps with the traditional “Hansel & Gretel” template, completely disrupting expectations on where the story will go. Intrusions of huntsmen, wolves, and old-fashioned ghouls at the periphery of the frame suggest that this is less an adaptation of a specific Brothers Grimm bedtime story than it is the resulting dream when the listener falls asleep halfway through the tale. Perkins & Hayes seemingly jolt awake for the film’s third act and scramble to tie all their narrative loose ends together into a traditional linear narrative, but it’s mostly a fool’s errand. Any last-minute attempts to tidy up this spooky-goofy mess only make it more blatantly strange as a whole.

The most amusing false gesture toward conventionality in Gretel & Hansel is its initial presentation as “a story with a lesson.” The film introduces itself as a traditional fairy tale that warns children to beware of gifts, frequently chiding “Nothing is given without something else being taken away.” Over time, feminist themes about the social prison of domestic duties and the vulnerability of young women in a world stacked against them bubble to the surface, as if this were a modern update to Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. Ultimately, the only clear message conveyed by the movie overall is “The woods are scary.” There isn’t time for much else as Perkins busies himself packing the screen with as many visual indulgences as possible: spooky triangles (truly the scariest shape), smoke machines clashing with colorful lights, a faceless witch figure who could only be described as Orville Heck, etc. Instead of a spooky mood piece where Nothing Happens (a complaint that could be ungenerously lobbed at Perkins’s earlier films), this is a goofy mood piece where so much happens that it’s impossible to make sense of it all. The tension between conventional genre payoffs & Oz Perkins’s “elevated horror” tendencies is absolutely thrilling throughout this self-conflicted novelty. I’m in love with how playful & unpredictable it feels from scene to scene while still maintaining the quiet atmosphere of Perkins’s earlier pictures at large. I don’t believe he has it in him to make a genuine opening-weekend crowd pleaser, and this delightfully weird attempt at such a prospect is downright adorable.

-Brandon Ledet

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017)

Oz Perkins’s debut feature I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House displayed an impressive command of an ambient art horror tone, but bottled it up in such a stubborn sense of stasis that it felt wasted on a story that didn’t deserve it. His follow-up (paradoxically completed before Pretty Thing and since left floating in a distribution limbo) is just as tonally unnerving as that quiet nightmare of a debut, but applies it to a much more satisfying end. Perkins’s sensibilities as a horror auteur are wrapped up in the eeriness of droning sound design and the tension of waiting for the hammer to drop. That aesthetic an be frustrating when left to rot in a directionless reflection on stillness, but when woven into the fabric of a supernatural mystery the way it is in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, it can be entirely rewarding, not to mention deeply disturbing.

Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men) & Lucy Boynton (Sing Street, Don’t Knock Twice) star as two Catholic boarding school students left stranded for their one week winter break when their parents fail to show and collect them. One girl is dealing with the complications of a secret teenage romance while the other just feels painfully alone. Left in an empty school with only snow & prayers to fill their days, their dual sense of loneliness begins to feel violently oppressive. Meanwhile a third girl, played by Emma Roberts (Nerve), escapes from a mental hospital and hitchhikes her way towards the school, establishing a sense of mystery about exactly how her story will merge with theirs and how the three girls’ loneliness will manifest into a real world evil. Evil is both physical & metaphysical in the film, as it is in most Catholic setting horrors, but the way it will choose to present itself is obscured until its presence is inescapable.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter follows a fractured, non-linear structure that teases the possibility of a puzzle that isn’t meant to be solved. Flashbacks of priests, hospitals, boiler rooms, and cops wielding rifles are filtered through multiple unreliable POVs, paradoxical timelines, and unexplained occultist rituals that strongly suggest the film will ultimately be a Lynchian puzzlebox, a question without an answer. Suddenly, without emphasis, its story does become very clear and relatively simple as the cloud of mystery lifts. Notes of classic horror milestones like Halloween & The Exorcist emerge from the film’s deceptively loose, mysterious tone, bringing it to the mix of high art aesthetic & low genre film familiarity I love so much. What starts as an art film meditation on loneliness gradually reveals itself to be a much more familiar mode of violent horror filmmaking, a genre exercise masquerading as a complex mind puzzle. I love it for that.

In some ways The Blackcoat’s Daughter is just as languid as I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, but it sets in motion so many more moving pieces and is a lot more willing to deliver the violence implied by its horrific tone. Personally, I should probably be giving Perkins’s command of tone much more attention as an audience than I am already. Both of his features are hinged on a roaring, ambient soundtrack (crafted by his brother Elvis Perkins) that would probably be better experienced through headphones, or at least on a more expensive sound system than the one I have at home. If you’re curious about his work or just have an appetite for ambient horror in general, I highly recommend starting with The Blackcoat’s Daughter and giving it the full alone late at night with headphones treatment. I really enjoyed it the first time around, but I’m going to have to revisit it for that immersive soundscape experience myself.

-Brandon Ledet