Oz Perkins makes efficient use of beloved fairytales, twisting the story, as implied by the name swap, Gretel & Hansel. Predominantly, the twist is an obvious one: this is Gretel’s story, almost to the exclusion of Hansel, who goes missing for half the film. It is a workmanlike indie horror picture that never sacrifices itself to cheap thrills, even when it has earned them, with a generally lovely series of shots. It does have some restraint. And it builds the story along a linear line. Very early on, we know where we are going, and we know it on the way, and then we can say we knew it when we got there. As much as Perkins twists the story, he also restrains himself from just throwing the kids in the oven and throwing up a cautionary flag that says, “this is dark and subversive.”
The truth is that Perkins earns all of the feeling achieved, and that he accomplishes precisely what he has set out to do. It’s a very simple thing. Much of the story takes place in the backwoods. As the Brothers Grimm classic goes, it remains just about as threadbare as that, while still requiring eighty-seven minutes to justify itself as a feature. We only have three characters and, crucially, one set: the witch’s house (not made of gingerbread, but whatever, it’s horror now.) Alice Krige is a bit of a wonder as the witch, oscillating between unshared accents with the other actors, an amalgamation of the storybook witch and Willem Dafoe from The Lighthouse (2019), oddly. Hansel is played by Samuel Leakey, boyish, Hansel-ish, reminiscent of the kid from Over the Garden Wall — “and that is a rock fact,” we keep expecting him to say. Meanwhile, Sophia Lillis emerges as a gem of a young horror actress as Gretel, further expanding her range from It (2017)’s Beverly, where she was already the best one there. The whole picture is just these three in the woods, to its benefit and detriment.
The name-swap also suggests a clear agenda: it is a feminist picture first. It offers for young girls that horror wish-fulfillment young men have always enjoyed, and it is quite good at that. On the strength of Lillis and Krige’s characters’ shared witchcraft, acute feminist energy emerges, and all that is implies by the simple name. A solid “yes” to all the horror pictures that wish to do this, without ever pandering, or feeling reductive to the original story. Instead, Gretel & Hansel builds it up nicely. As slight as it all is, there’s something to the picked-over bones of that story. It is fundamental and sound children’s storytelling. It works as well here as it has always worked. It works well when we lose the boy about halfway through and it becomes the story of two women embattled in the magic of their womanhood.
Oz Perkins is a very interesting horror director. Gretel & Hansel establishes a fair economy of purpose here: it is feminism in a Grimm wrapper. That functionally works for the whole runtime. It does run a bit slight and that is largely fine, as it does not carry any more significant goals than otherwise stated. It is largely a shame it did not find an autumnal release as it is most alive in its feeling of that season. Perkins has created a good lightweight feminist horror story. Surely, young women benefit from those existing.