Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Review: "Gretel and Hansel" is a creepy though uneven surprise

Gretel and Hansel Review

If you were to ask me that I'd be seeing a movie about Gretel and Hansel and it would remind me of the movie "The Witch," I wouldn't have believed you. 

Granted, I don't want this to sound like I am saying "Gretel and Hansel" is better than "The Witch." It's just a much grander effort than I would have expected from a horror movie this early in the new year. It feels very much in the vein of the original Grimm fairy tale. What were the original Grimm fairy tales like? Much darker than you probably think. We have grown up over the decades seeing sanitized and Disney-fied versions of fairy tales that we forget (or probably didn't know) how dark those early fairy tales were in tone and style. Take "The Three Little Pigs" for instance. We grew up hearing that a Big Bad Wolf came along and blew down two houses belonging to pigs, before he got to a brick house he couldn't destroy. In the original writings, The Big Bad Wolf not only blows down those first two houses, but eats the first two pigs. When the wolf gets to the brick house and the third pig, he can't blow it down. So he tries to get in through the chimney, when he does, the pig has a pot kettle boiling and he cooks and eats the wolf alive. Not only does the third pig eat the wolf, he eats his two brothers.

In the original "Hansel and Gretel" fairy tale, the two siblings don't get lost in the forest as per usual. They have an bitchy stepmother who manipulates their father to cast them out, getting them lost in the forest. They come across a house made out of yummy things to eat, and out comes a witch to greet them. She begins to fatten up the children because she's planning on cooking them and eating them. As the witch is preparing her oven, Gretel sees an opportunity. She pushes the witch into her own oven and burns the witch alive. Thus getting her brother and leaving the house behind.

"Gretel and Hansel" returns this fairy tale back to its horror roots. Instead of a bitchy stepmother to deal with, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Sammy Leaky) have to deal with a mother who is slowly losing her mind. So the children run away, much like the original fairy tale, they happen upon a house that smells like delicious food. Gone is the house made of candy, sugar and other sweets. This is merely just a house. But it is the home of a woman named Holda (played by Alice Krige). Holda is incredibly creepy, both in look and in performance and its wonderful acting on Krige's part.

I think its not totally unintentional that the movie is called "Gretel and Hansel" instead of the original "Hansel and Gretel," but there is a reason for that. I don't mean to make anybody cringe, but there is a bit of feminism within the movie. While Holda pays lip service to it in a couple of instances, we begin to figure out that Gretel may have magical witch powers of her own and one of the cliffhangers of the movie is whether or not Gretel will be a good or a bad witch. But if you think you are going to get an "agenda" shoved down your throat, relax. This movie has more to say about coming-of-age and shifting into adulthood more than anything else. And why not? That shift into adulthood is kinda scary. Its definitely different leaving the comfort of your home and vanishing into the real world and I think the movie represents some of those anxieties in a big way. 

The movie boils down to Holda trying to train Gretel to become a bad witch and Holda's ultimate plan is for Gretel to literally eat Hansel to complete her evil training. I know, its even more messed up than the Brothers Grimm could have even imagined. For a movie that is barely an hour and a half, getting to this point feels like you are watching molasses drip. It should also be pointed out that "Gretel and Hansel" is more unsettling and moody than it is scary. There really aren't many scare tactics in this movie. It is very much a slow burn. There are moments of uneasy surreal scenes and there are some weird dream sequences. This is a movie that slowly puts the hooks into you, not something that is trying to make you jump out of your seat at every given moment. For that, I do give "Gretel and Hansel" kudos for thinking outside the box.

I am intrigued by the future of Sophia Lillis, because I think she has the potential to be a big star as she gets older. She had one of the most commanding presences in the "IT" movies and she made her moments on "Sharp Objects" from HBO count. Sammy Leaky is also a wonderful discovery here. It seems so unorthodox to put children in harms way, even in the horror genre. These two children really sell the peril and the angst they are in and they play off Krige really well. Especially in the moments when Krige's Holda gets weirder and weirder.

January and February are usually slow months when it comes to movies. But every once in awhile we get some surprises that come out of the woodwork. Based upon how its created, I am not sure if "Gretel and Hansel" will be for everybody. But if you are up for some spooky and moody fair, this should go down smooth for you.


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