Everything about Gretel & Hansel (2020) felt off from the name reordering and the trailer. I expected it to be another cheesy horror film dropped in January, but that doesn’t fairly describe this movie. Director Oz Perkins crafted something much more menacing than the trailer suggested, and it surprisingly has something to say. It’s not a horror film that will appeal to a wide audience if they are expecting jump scares and a simple story – but if you want more from your horror, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is forced to take her brother, Hansel (Sammy Leakey), into the woods to look for food and work. After what seems like days pass with no luck, Gretel and Hansel stumble upon a strange house in the middle of the woods. The house belongs to Holda (Alice Krige), who invites them in to use the house as temporary lodging – but Gretel is rightfully suspicious.
I imagine most of us are familiar with the simple premise of the story: two children venture into the woods and find a house made of sweets. They pig out, as one would, and are captured by a witch that lives inside. She continues to feed them to fatten them up before planning on eating them. It’s crazy to think about the horrific “children” stories we tell our kids that have been passed down time and time again. The premise is ripe for a horror movie of a more traditional style, but Perkins again isn’t going with straight tradition. Gretel is much older than Hansel and is applying for a job as a maid. The interview takes a creepy turn when the older man asks her about her maidenhood. It becomes instantly clear that this film may be tackling the role of women.
Lillis is terrific in the lead here. She showed great promise in It (2017) and only seems to solidify that with this performance. The movie rests squarely on her shoulders, and she appears more than prepared for that burden. From the tight wide lens shots to the shaky handheld camera that follows her at times of the most anxiety-inducing moments, Lillis is ready to guide the audience into this fever dream fairy tale. However, it wouldn’t be as unsettling if not for Krige. As the owner of the house, her look and performance solidifies this as a horror film in every way. She is alarmingly sweet, and I love the various directions her character takes.
The truth is, I think this film has more to say than I was able to pick up on my initial viewing. There are elements that I couldn’t quite decipher, and that should say something about what kind of movie this is. It is short but may feel slow, as it meanders in concepts more than other horror films. However, if you are into more atmospheric films, then you may love it. Gretel and Hansel earn the Decent Watch rating leaning towards Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy.