The term “style over substance” is overused in critical circles, especially when it comes to arthouse genre films. But for works such as Mandy or even last year’s Midsommar, the style is the substance and elevates a simple narrative into something nightmarishly transcendent.
The same can’t quite be said for Gretel & Hansel. With its strange narrative turns that vary from interesting to baffling, all leading to an ending that’s disappointingly generic, this dark retelling of the classic fairy tale is most certainly style over substance — but wow, that style!
Starring Sophia Lillis (It) as Gretel and newcomer Samuel Leakey as her younger brother, Hansel, the film dives deeper into the events that led the titular children into the woods in the original tale. It’s this element of the film that’s the weakest, painting a world around our two leads so cruel and frightening that it lessens the impact of the terror that they face at the hands of the evil witch (wonderfully played by Alice Krige). A psychotic mother, a killer in the woods and a loathsome brothel owner all play into the opening 20 or so minutes, and this barrage of over-the-top threats is out of step with the rest of the film’s refreshingly slow pace.
Writer Rob Hayes (whose credits include a few obscure short films and contributing “additional material” to some British TV comedies) also attempts to give this version of the tale a more feminist edge by focusing on Gretel’s transition to womanhood and the anxieties inherent with that milestone. It’s an interesting thematic concept to play with, and one that works well in the film’s second and third acts. Unfortunately, the film relies on narration to spell out some of the more obvious elements of the story.
The saving grace of Gretel & Hansel is director Osgood Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) — son Psycho‘s Anthony Perkins — who proves to be one of the most stylistically adept filmmakers working in the horror genre. The film succeeds best when it diverts from the rather messy narrative and instead luxuriates in eerie atmosphere. Some hardcore horror fans might hate how the film opts for this more relaxed form of filmmaking as opposed to jump scares or endless amounts of gore, but I found it truly engrossing and genuinely frightening. Perkins makes the most of his claustrophobic 1.55:1 aspect ratio and fills the frame with disconcerting close-ups and gorgeous wide shots of malevolent silhouettes in a woods awash in a red, Argento-esque hue.
As strong as Perkins’ visuals are, the score by the great Robin Coudert (Maniac; Revenge) might be my favorite aspect of this film. As a sucker for horror soundtracks that are wall-to-wall electronic, I’ve already listened to Coudert’s latest musical creation — and it holds up strongly on its own.
Legendary Texas-based film critic, Joe Bob Briggs, often pans lesser horror films that allow plot to get in the way of the story — and that’s really the major problem with Gretel & Hansel. The movie is front-loaded with way too much exposition in the first act, and every time the film seems to find its meditative, stylish groove, it stops dead in its tracks for a pointless plot development. However, Perkins has still crafted one of the most visually stunning horror films this side of Midsommar and one that features sequences that certainly got under my skin.