Thursday, June 25, 2020

Movie Review: Gretel & Hansel

Gretel & Hansel *** / *****
Directed by: Osgood Perkins.
Written by: Rob Hayes.
Starring: Sophia Lillis (Gretel), Samuel Leakey (Hansel), Alice Krige (Witch), Jessica De Gouw (Witch), Fiona O'Shaughnessy (Mother), Donncha Crowley (Master Stripp), Jonathan Gunning (Emaciated Man), Charles Babalola (The Hunter), Giulia Doherty (Beautiful Child), Jonathan Delaney Tynan (Father), Darlene Garr (Widow), Melody Carrillo (Enchantress).

In his first three films, Osgood Perkins has done more than enough to showcase his immense talent – and prove to be a horror movie director to watch. All of the films – The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and now Gretel & Hansel are magnificent visually – layering on atmosphere rather than relying on jump scares and gore for effect. He certainly takes his time building up the mounting dread of in his movies. And yet, other than The Blackcoat’s Daughter, the first film he made, although the second released (and also, undeniably his most conventional), I’m not quite sold that Perkins does anything except build atmosphere. The films look great, but I’m not sure they add up to all that much – and don’t quite creep under your skin the way the best horror films do – they seem at a slight remove. There is evidence here – his biggest film to date – that Perkins isn’t going to change his style to suit what people except in a horror film – and I still think that a great horror film is in his future. He just hasn’t quite got there yet.

You can tell two things about the movie from its title – yes, this will be another take on the famed Grimm (and grim) fairy tale about the pair of siblings being lured to a house by a witch, but that this time, the narrative will focus primarily on Gretel. She is played by the talented young actress Sophia Lillis (It, I Am Not Okay with This, Sharp Objects) – and she is older than Hansel this time. She is becoming a young woman, while Hansel is still a child. Things start ominously with their mentally ill mother through them out of the house – abandoning them for dead, telling them to dig “pretty little graves” – before heading out to the deep, dark woods. They meet a kindly woodcutter – but that won’t last long. When they finally get to the Witch’s house (played in a wonderfully creepy performance by Alice Krige) – Gretel is smart enough to notice that things aren’t right fairly early.

Gretel & Hansel is a triumph of atmosphere to be sure. The cinematography by Galo Olivares is dark and ominous, the score by Robert Coudert, will likely bring to mind some classic 1980s horror movies score. The art direction and production design by Jeremy Reed and Christine McDonagh – is a surreal triumph for the witch’s house alone. The performances by Lillis and Krige in particular get the same sense of foreboding dread to not overtake the narrative. Everything works together to have the exact, hushed tone that Perkins has nailed in his first three films.

Yet, I cannot help but wonder – as I did with I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House – if it’s a bunch of visually greatness at the service of something not altogether that interesting. The screenplay tries for a feminist take on this fairy tale – but it’s a very obvious one. The narrative does offer some surprises along the way – but not quite enough.

In short, Gretel & Hansel is, for the third film in a row from Perkins, a sign of just how talented he is – and continues to make me want to see what he does next. He’s got the hard part – the thing that most directors never get right – already down. At some point though, he needs to use it in service of something greater.

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