Forget about gingerbread houses and white pebbles: if Oz Perkins’ Gretel and Hansel takes its inspiration in the classic Grimm story, what he shows us has little to do with a children’s story. The inherent eerie nature of fairytales has been an inspiration for many horror films in the past, from its most mainstream representants in Pan’s Labyrinth to the more obscure in The Lure. It was only a matter of time before the most famous abandoned kids of German literature would get their own time to shine in the ever-changing world of arthouse horror.
As the inversion of the title hints towards, the film takes a deeper interest in the female component of the duo. Now a young teenager (Sophia Lillis) on the verge of womanhood looking over her frankly annoying little brother (Samuel Leakey in his first role), Gretel is soon promoted to protagonist status as their mother evicts them from their small house, possibly more because of her daughter’s rebellious tendencies than the family’s poverty. The imbalance of power between the two siblings gives the perspective of a fresh relationship between the two as the young woman takes on a caretaker role that she never signed up for.
Yet if Perkins lures us in at first with the signature sharp visuals and other-wordly atmosphere he had already shown in his Netflix produced I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House as well as his much more compelling February, this third effort from the horror director soon starts to feel superficial. Its ideas could have made for something truly interesting: as Holda, the mysterious woman living in the middle of the forest (Alice Krige) starts to take a liking to Gretel, the promise of a bond between the villain and the protagonist is certainly intriguing, but ultimately leads nowhere new.
Just as the siblings get lost in the forest, Perkins gets disorientated by his own message. Despite a compelling start, what he ultimately offers us is a muddled and terribly slow-paced look at ideas that have been explored in a much better way before by other filmmakers, himself included. It pales in comparison to the films it (perhaps unwillingly) invokes: the witch’s triangular house and a fairly tame scene of mushroom-induced hallucinations can’t help but remind even casual moviegoers of last year’s horror hit Midsommar, while the themes of female empowerment feel like little more than artifice to make the film’s lack of substance less obvious.
Reclaiming the figure of the witch in a feminist way isn’t a particularly new trope in horror: Robert Eggers or Anna Biller’s eponymous witches are prime examples of this in recent years. In the hands of Perkins and accompanied by a half-written script, it feels like the most simple case of demonizing young female teenagers for their most basic emotions rather than anything remotely empowering. If there ever were any intentions of making this a feminist reinvention of a classic story, they are hard to see in the final product — and by the time the film reaches its end, any feelings of novelty are gone.
As stunning as Gretel and Hansel’s visuals are, it can’t compensate for the fact that it is entirely built on bits and pieces of what we’ve seen too many times before. While th runtime doesn’t even reach the 90 minutes mark, it feels like a much longer watch, considerably brought down by its own lack of understanding of what it is trying to say. Lillis certainly puts up a good fight and offers a decent main performance, but the same can’t be said of her co-stars, who often get dangerously close to mediocre, if not downright poor acting. Considering the kind of films Perkins has offered before, it is truly a shame to see him becoming a parody of himself so early in his career. The only thing to hope for is that his next effort will see him finally trying for something new; for, while this may have been marketed as a reimagination, there is little innovation to be found here.