Oz Perkins’ latest nightmarish horror film “Gretel & Hansel” is a late January treat, buoyed by the filmmaker’s desolate visual style and a commanding lead performance from “It” breakout star Sophia Lillis.
As the flashy new title suggests, Perkins’ (“I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” “The Blackcoat’s Daughter”) newest film is a modern retelling of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale “Hansel and Gretel,” about two siblings forced out into the woods by their parents, where a seemingly kind old woman takes them in.
The film, released Jan. 31, positions Gretel (Lillis) as the lead protagonist and Hansel (Sam Leakey) as her helpless younger brother. This choice, as well as the removal of the children’s father, a key figure in the original text, gives the film’s pared-down narrative a welcome layer of added subtext from the original.
Placing Gretel in the caretaker role reshapes the classic story as an examination of the burden a patriarchal society puts on women — expecting them to be subservient and compassionate, caring for men but always bending to their wills.
Perkins adds another wrinkle to the story by removing the original story’s literal and figurative breadcrumbs. Without Hansel’s scheme to leave a trail of crumbs guiding the pair back to their parents from the original, the young pair are left with no option to return home. As the older sibling, Gretel finds herself responsible for feeding herself and her brother, but she bears few employable skills beyond baking and turning down linens.
Depicting Gretel’s lack of power in a male-dominated world is a new avenue for this classic story, and Perkins’ film deftly conveys the temptation of a kind face and a plate of hot food in the middle of the damp, dark woods, especially to a young boy and a teenage girl fending for themselves.
Beyond narrative changes, the film’s costume design, set design and unearthly forest imagery reflect modern horror sensibilities and provide the film a timeless, fantastical quality fit for a 2020 folk story.
Perkins has a keen sense of style, and all his trademarks are present here. Dark figures loom in the distance throughout the siblings’ journey, shrouded by hooded robes and forest brush just enough to make their very existence nebulous.
The film’s color palette ranges from smoky, autumnal orange leaves to uncannily pink ham, with an array of distressing color combinations in between. Muddy yellow-green elixirs and milk that’s a sickly white far too pure for the film’s rural setting.
Holda (Alice Krige), the old woman in this version of the narrative, lives in a dark, angular cabin lit by windows that glow a deep orange. The aged look of the still-magnificent cabin and the cracked, deep mahoganies of the furniture don’t align with the colors of Holda’s endless food, and her benevolence puts the siblings off from the very beginning.
All of this serves a simplified plot compared to the original folk tale, but Perkins is too smart to just update the aesthetic, change the main character and call it a day.
Exploring the patriarchal society of this vague, but ostensibly early colonial setting is a tall task for a folk tale, but Perkins’ handles it eloquently.
The story’s focus on Gretel enables Perkins to explore Holda in a new light. “Hansel and Gretel” is famous for, among many other things, its oven-based climax. Perkins recognizes this, but also identifies Holda’s power as an independent, self-sufficient woman, and hones in on the allure this lifestyle holds for Greta.
Without betraying the film’s updated narrative, every twist the film takes adds more to Lillis’ (“Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” “Sharp Objects”) plate. Fortunately, Lillis is more than up to the task, displaying tender sibling skills with Hansel and tangible dread with Holda.
Perkins’ first two films received critical acclaim and cult followings, but his arthouse style isn’t necessarily a recipe for box office success. Made on a budget of $5 million and released early in the year, it’s clear the director’s third film is a low-risk bet for Perkins, as well as an opportunity for Lillis to continue her ascension.
Attaching Perkins to a notable intellectual property and an emerging star in Lillis may not crack the proverbial wide-release audience code for Perkins, but “Gretel & Hansel” is another step forward in the director’s young career.
“Gretel & Hansel,” rated PG-13, is now playing nationwide.