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.