I had secretly been asking for this of any power that be that would listen. While I am still awaiting a new vampire renaissance, I still have enough material coming out of various and often dubious quality. I watch as the zombie era desiccates as it should after a time. I see the Werewolves still awaiting their due, I am sure it will come at some point. The one I have been missing for some time and longing for in the dark was The Witches. I am not sure what happened with them after a brief surge in the 80’s. The Craft and Practical Magic did what they could, but alas it was not enough. I am not talking a movie that is vaguely about Witches (sorry Blair Witch) either, I am talking about movies definitively about the Hollywood and Fairy Tale witch. Perhaps my timelines are blurring a bit where the space between is not as noticed, but since 2016 we have the superlative VVitch, then we had the rise of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina now in its 3rd season; and now in the beginning of 2020 we get Gretel & Hansel. I could be hopeful in believing this, but I will take what I can as this is a painfully under served genre.
NOTE: The genre with few exceptions has little to nothing to do with any actual practicing witches. These films should never been conflated with any sense of realism so my term of Hollywood and Fairy Tale witches is important to consider.
With that out of the way should you fall under Gretel’s spell?
The movie was written by Rob Hayes in his first long form and theatrical turn. He has some shorts credited as well as some TV, but this is that first foray into the bigger machine. From a story perspective it is at its simplest a fairy tale with a modern storyteller. Gretel and Hansel are left to their own devices in a time not quite defined, but clearly intended to be 1600-1700’s. In an attempt to find food, shelter, and perhaps a permanent home they end up off the path and in the care of Holda and within her house in the woods. Holda has much to offer both of the children, but all things have a price. Who will pay it and how steep will it be?
You know how from time to time two movies come along that make you think the script was shopped around and while one studio officially turned it down they then had someone else write something similar? Dante’s Peak and Volcano. Armageddon and Deep Impact. Normally that happens in the same year, this happened three years apart. This attempts to invoke the VVitch and could very well be a distant cousin to that film as the ties are close. Perhaps too close? I don’t mind it as much because the stories themselves are different and the temptations offered are more or less real to each other. I suppose my confusion with this one is – what is the message Hayes is trying to tell?
The visual style and direction of Ozgood “Oz” Perkins started as an actor in a variety of films from different genre’s before taking the directors chair in 2015 with The Blackcoats Daughter. It’s clear to me he has seen the VVitch, but has also seen The Neon Demon. There is a real love here shown for Giallo style movies and high art, style over substance film making. Clear intent is made with distorted focuses, abnormal perspectives, colour palettes both muted and vibrant, and a synthwave soundtrack (by Robin “Rob” Coudert) straight from a Nicolas Winding Refn movie. There is a very real pulse from the music that drives the movie as much as the actors do with it’s own dissonant chords that aren’t done by sharp notes across the strings. The entire aesthetic leaves you just enough off balance that with the stilted dialogue and harsh performances a viewer begins to question dream, reality, or both? Sadly, the questions are answered by modernism. The veritable green curtain is pulled too far and we don’t get to savor some of the key moments because the final cut of the movie was perhaps too direct.
Now I mentioned above harsh acting. This is not bad acting. Quite the contrary, Sophia Lillis (IT, Nancy Drew) has a lot to do here as Gretel. She has to be controlled and controlling. She has to go to what is trying to be unnatural dialogue from that mysterious period and on top of that still be someone we wish to see victorious – however that victory may look. Samuel Leakey, roughly age 8, doesn’t have an easy time of it either. Equally challenging dialogue and a need to be both childish and quiet isn’t easy. The amazing Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact, Silent Hill) was made to be the Witch o the Wood. Her presence and experience clearly helped here with both young actors and also bringing a level of menace from moment one that cannot be denied. These performances were harsh but its by design and good acting that they succeeded.
I found Gretel & Hansel a satisfying film. It was the film I was looking for and hoped it would be from the trailer. I also know this will not be everyone’s cup of tea. There is severe style over substance here despite this quote from (Ozgood) Perkins:
“It’s awfully faithful to the original story. It’s got really only three principal characters: Hansel, Gretel, and the Witch. We tried to find a way to make it more of a coming of age story. I wanted Gretel to be somewhat older than Hansel, so it didn’t feel like two twelve-year-olds – rather a sixteen-year-old and an eight-year-old. There was more of a feeling like Gretel having to take Hansel around everywhere she goes, and how that can impede one’s own evolution, how our attachments and the things that we love can sometimes get in the way of our growth.”[Ew.com]
This theme is spelled out too much. The underlying currents within the movie are at odds with one another, despite the metaphor for puberty and finding ones own place in the world. Maybe they intended to leave it to discussion, but with a movie like this I don’t advise it. It will leave most audiences going “ok and?” where they should be going “ok more..”
I want more of this and more like it. I haven’t felt the way I did on the drive home in some time and the charge I felt was good. It only comes when a genre movie hits me right and this one did, but I promise it will miss the mark for most.
Should I see it then?
If this looked of interest to you? Yes. If you enjoy Witch movies ala Hollywood? Yes. Want atmosphere for days and some rather nice visuals? Onward to the Matinee you go.
Would you watch it again?
In theatres? Perhaps with friends who would wander into the woods and wish to stay.
That was cryptic. Are you going to buy it?
Yes. Yes I am. My shelf of magic movies is too small and this will go nicely.
Were you scared? I mean this looks to be a horror movie.
No. It was far too tame to scare me or disturb me. Others might find some aspects a bit more on the squeamish side. Thematically it’s more dark fantasy than horror to me, but much like with the cold I am hard to impress. I’d love to get some time with the director and discuss with him the authorial intent.
All in all this was a satisfactory outing for me, but won’t do it for far too many to be considered a success story. There are too few jumps and oohs and ahs, and that message just leaves everything too murky despite its visual appeal.