REVIEW: Gretel & Hansel is a half-measure horror

I don’t mean this to be a major insult but it felt like everyone involved in the making of the movie set out to do an “A24” sort of movie, but failed to commit fully to the idea. The result is a half-measure that failed to land.

An A24 horror film is patient, atmospheric, often esoteric. They’re nothing like the pop-culture/main-stream sort of horror movies, that rely on quips and jump scares and simplistic supernatural elements. A24 films create a feeling of dread and rely on a palpable, unshakable mood to keep the audience unsettled. Pop-horror movies—after you’ve seen them a time or two and know where all the “scary moments” are—tend to become tedious and boring. You realize that they have long stretches of nothing in between fleeting “moments” (literally) of scares.

Really, they’re not even “scares;” they’re “surprises.”

A24 movies (and again, I know this makes me sound super pretentious and I don’t mean to be) often, in my experience, are able to be revisited time and again, with that same foreboding and unsettling feeling coming back every time you watch. When you watch The Conjuring (a very well-made pop-horror film) enough times, you know when every scary moment is going to happen, so you’re not scared anymore. Can it really be called a horror film at that point? If you’re not scared what are you even watching the movie for? You’re not watching it; you’re just sitting through it.

On the other hand, I can watch Hereditary for the umpteenth time and still walk away with a mildly upset stomach.

Gretel and Hansel wants to be an A24-sort of horror movie. It has long, slow takes, a lot of slightly unnatural, almost dreamlike, dialogue, bizarre imagery with little explanation, and a moody atmosphere. Where it stumbles is in a failure to fully embrace those ideas, or to trust that the movie can work with just those ideas. It’s made with a lot of confidence but I wonder if producer notes didn’t interfere with Osgood Perkins’ vision for the movie.

Most egregious is the narration, which feels tacked-on and unnatural to the movie around it…as if the producers were worried people wouldn’t “get” what was happening and demanded the main character walk us through exactly what she’s thinking and doing and why. At first I thought the narration was a framing device, with Gretel “telling a story” like a quasi Sister Grimm, but no; it just ended up with her talking, not to a character, but to the movie-going audience.

Speaking of producer’s notes ruining movies, there’s a scene early on where Hansel and Gretel seek shelter in a house with…a zombie? I think? It’s a go-nowhere moment to create action and terror where, without it, the movie would have been “too slow” (as the note would say). It was needless. Jump scares like that are peppered throughout the first two acts. They feel tacked-on because they probably were.

Another example of the movie failing to commit fully to its ideas is in how hand-holdy it is with exposition. While the middle of the movie has basically no exposition about the goings-on, the movie begins and ends with an info dump. That’s not to imply that A24 horror movies don’t have exposition; they do, but they are usually spread out in little bites throughout the feature…if at all.

The ending, on paper, works. The witch gets her comeuppance, the boy is saved, and the girl uses her witchy woman powers for good instead of evil. How it gets there is rushed, convoluted, and a bit contrived. It’s too pat for a movie with these sorts of ambitions. Honestly, and this is going to sound really pretentious, but “if this was a real A24 film,” Gretel would have eaten her brother and become the new evil Witch in the house. But I guess that kind of ending is too downer for something that’s trying to win over a pop-audience.

Those are my criticisms.

There is a lot I enjoyed about the movie, particularly with the visuals and the actors. The film is beautifully photographed, often relying on a single lamp in the middle of the frame to provide any light source, and letting the shadows dance and disturb on the periphery of almost every shot.

All three actors are great as well, with Alice Krige, in particular, being captivating as the Witch. She was never overtly menacing, never raised her voice, yet there was genuine dread that seemed to orbit around her. Early into the second act, I wondered if the film would be more like Nosferatu, where this grotesque, obviously villainous character would stalk and attack the main character(s) when night fell. But really she seemed perfectly content to let the boy get fat and let the girl grow curiouser and curiouser about her powers. I wonder if she had never been threatened or if Hansel had never been sent away, if she ever would have attacked them.

The middle of the movie was quite good, with a solid feeling of worry, the mystery about the old woman and the source of all her food, and Gretel’s many dreams. It’s all very effectively shot and mostly well-written.

It just sort of whittles under pressure for the finale.

The movie feels like a missed opportunity. It was so close to becoming a cult favorite, had it only been a little more daring. I think the people in charge got cold feet and watered the film down in the hopes of creating a mainstream, pop-horror hit. Instead, the movie will be forgotten in a month and rarely commented on again.

7/10 – Gretel and Hansel’s greatest sin is that it’s only okay, when it could have been so much more.

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