Gretel & Hansel Review: Somebody Scare Me

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BY January 31, 2020

I was a bit nervous going to see Gretel & Hansel. Mind you, I wasn’t nervous about seeing a scary movie; rather, I was apprehensive about seeing this movie. I’d seen director Oz Perkins’s film The Blackcoat’s Daughter and found it merely okay–an atmospheric tone poem devoid of real scares with an ending I found too pat. But worse, I was going to see this with my sister, who has no patience for arty horror. Her glare immediately after the final scene of It Comes at Night haunts my dreams more than that movie ever will. But will I be haunted by this one? Find out in my review of Gretel & Hansel.

You Know This Story, Don’t You?

Gretel & Hansel Review image via Orion Pictures/United Artists

Even if you didn’t grow up with a thick volume of Grimms Märchen on your bedside table, like I did, you’re probably more than a little familiar with the source material. But in case you’re not, here it goes. In a time of great deprivation–probably based on the Great Famine of 1315-1317–a woodcutter and his wife, who is the children’s mother or stepmother, depending on the version, have 2 kids. They abandon the titular children, Hansel and Gretel, in the woods because they can’t feed them anymore.

However, instead of succumbing to the natural fate of serving as wolf food, the children stumble upon a real-life gingerbread house. The witch who lives in the house traps them there, intending to fatten them up for eatin’. Young Gretel, however, gets the drop on the witch, killing her. The children escape with the witch’s riches and somehow find their way back to daddy, who feels really bad about that whole abandonment thing. And then…happily ever after.

I never really liked this story as a kid. I was more of a fan of another (lesser known) fairy tale, which I won’t name. If anyone’s going to reboot that one as modern horror, it’s gonna be me. Anyway, let’s get back to this classic tale (rebooted as modern horror).

Gretel & Hansel: A Brief Summary

Gretel & Hansel Review image via Orion Pictures/United Artists

In this version, as you can already tell by the title, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is the focus. While the fairy tale kind of glosses over the children’s ages, we can assume that they’re probably peers. Here, though, Gretel is mid-teens, while Hansel (Sam Leakey) hasn’t even hit his tween years. Their background is also a little altered. In this version, it’s their father who’s already dead, while their mother is left behind. As with the fairy tale, the time and place in which the characters live is in crisis. Jobs are scarce and people are hungry.

When Gretel doesn’t get a housekeeping job–the wealthy employer inquired about her virginity during the I-guess-you-could-call-it-a-job-interview–mom casts out Gretel and her little brother. (Although as in the fairy tale, mom’s actions appear desperate and more than a bit cruel, this film version of mom also seems like she’s not mentally well. Starvation can do that to you, though.) And then you know the outline of the story from there. They find the witch’s house and things are not as they seem.

Sure, it seems great. She’s got bountiful feasts on her table every day. But uh, where is it coming from? She has no animals, no garden, and she rarely leaves the house. Hansel, being so young, doesn’t care enough to question it. But Gretel has seen enough of the world to know that there are no free rides.

Gretel & Hansel: Review

Gretel & Hansel Review image via Orion Pictures/United Artists

And as this is ultimately Gretel’s story, we’re supposed to be with her on this. Perkins and screenwriter Rob Hayes have recast the fairy story as a slightly feminist coming-of-age tale. And surprisingly or not, their take works. Like many a modern teen, Gretel’s unfortunately already primed to expect misbehavior from adults, and as with modern girls, part of growing up is learning how to navigate it.

To that end, Gretel has some interesting conversations with Holda (Alice Krige), the witch, that touch on many facets of womanhood. In fact, they’re almost too interesting. When I caught sight of Holda’s A-frame cabin in the woods, my first thought was, This is the life. Add in those conversations and she almost seems reasonable, if it weren’t for, you know, the fairy tale villain stuff.

But there is that fairy tale villain stuff, which must be dealt with as it is in the fairy tale. And this, I think, is where the movie suffers. It wants to be dreamy, it wants to ruminate, but that robs it of any real chills. And once again, I’m faced with a horror movie whose ending I’m not quite sure I understand. I can read into it, I can project my own understanding, but that feels incomplete. I don’t need to have my hand held, but I would like to know there’s a real path through the woods. Ultimately, while this was a very striking and oftentimes unsettling film, it ends up as unsatisfying as a make-believe meal.

And while my sister didn’t give me any funny looks at the end, she did have about 83 questions about the movie, most of which I just had to guess at answering.

Have you seen Gretel & Hansel and want to offer your review? Do you also have a long list of unanswered questions? Ask in the comments below or on social media and we’ll make up some answers for you, too.

featured image via Orion Pictures and United Artists

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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