“Gretel and Hansel” has everything one would expect from a January horror quasi-remake. Except, strangely, the film looks superb. This story is consistently stale and under-stimulating while concurrently presenting itself with richly composed and carefully framed imagery. “Gretel and Hansel” presents its bear bones, vapid screenplay through frames that are polished and chilling.
The film’s reversed title hints at a different telling of the classic folklore story Hansel and Gretel. In this retelling, much of the character dynamics are reversed. Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is now the responsible older sibling of Hansel (Sammy Leaky) who is simpleminded and naive. As they venture into the woods they discover a foreboding, triangular house. They look into the window and see a grand wooden table covered with an assortment of food–pig, pastries, plums. They soon meet the witch who lives in the house, an older woman with ashy black fingers and a goofy mystery to her. As the film plays out, Gretel’s discovery of the truth of the house and this woman play out in an increasingly hackneyed fashion.
This iteration abandons the moral of the original story–Hansel and Gretel’s use of stones and breadcrumbs to set a path behind themselves. This was what tied everything together, with Gretel and Hansel used their wit and quick thinking to not loose their family and to escape the witch. This is, perchance, an attempt by the filmmakers to create a more plausible fantasy horror story. So be it.
However, instead of creating the fantasy horror twist on the story of Hansel and Gretel like they set out to, this is yet another banal, empty January horror film. We can be thankful that this isn’t as grungy and dilapidated as “The Grudge” or as flat and undistinguished as “Underwater”. “Gretel and Hansel” is more lazily unadorned than those films. It’s potential (while seldom) does indicate its ability to rise through the refuse of other low-ranking horror films that have saturated multiplexes. But it isn’t nearly enough.
Nothing confirms how low effort the writing is more than the film’s performances. Sophia Lillis’ performance as Gretel was relatively crummy, however, nothing notably bad. Sammy Leaky’s performance is a different story. A performance is bad when it doesn’t add tension to the scene. But a performance is outstandingly bad when it removes tension from the scene. This is the situation with Leaky’s performance. Perhaps we should cut Leaky some slack, after all he is just a young kid. The blame shall go to the people behind the camera. They must have let Leaky do whatever he wanted with his performance, because it often feels as though it’s just a young boy in a costume fooling around on set.
The film boasts visual excellence, despite this. The coarse, vivid look of the forest, the movement and angles of Perkins’ camera, and the use of framing to create horror showed their capability to create a stronger film. A shot where Gretel looks through a triangular hole into this house bleeds with satisfying movement and composition.
“Gretel and Hansel” is certainly an improvement over recent weeks’ films. However, it still lacks that haunting atmosphere that its influences (“Hereditary” in particular”) create. It is a film that one will walk into with no expectations for, and walk out disappointed. “Gretel and Hansel” satisfies the eyes, but never stimulates the brain