Der Wind, der Wind,/ Das himmlische Kind – German saying
With Hollywood very close to the mainstream narrative resourceful poverty line, the screen-writers are and have been, throughout the years (even when the industry was leading in the synthesis of ideation and narration) resorting to past material as fodder. Writer Rob Hayes (Monday, 2020) and Director Oz Perkins turn to the brothers, yet again (twenty-six adaptations have been either made for TV or for a theatrical release for one of the Brothers’ most revered and fearful fairy-tales, Hansel and Gretel, a German parable collected by the Brothers Grimm and published in 1812), the most recent, studio-backed outing, before this film, and gory yet a floundering misstep by director Tommy Wirkola is Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, 2013, where Wirkola, also working as the writer, turns the tables and a grown-up sister-brother duo is shown as professional witch hunters helping innocent villagers against the evil, packing heat in this reversal tall tale. Largely a Leftists fantasy, the Norwegian director Wirkola and actors Gemma Arterton (Byzantium, 2012) and Jeremy Renner (Dahmer, 2003) unfortunately cannot help but make the film abysmal and demeaning, despite their star power combined, all this while they show us new ways of reloading a crossbow and a shotgun together. Something like what John Wick does in the catacombs; he shoots a goon with his Glock 26 and loads the (now empty) Benelli M2 Super 90 simultaneously with single slug ammo from the shell holder on the side of the receiver, and buckshot with the barrel on the victim’s chest and pulls the trigger. That scene will definitely go down in history as one of the greatest action sequences in film history ever.
Coming back to the smoky, charred film at hand. The stygian forest where Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Samuel Leaky) are tossed away (in a very French Extremist wave way with the mother, descending into madness, speaking under her breath and uttering inaudible sounds of carnage and depravity & slamming an ax down on the wooden table) into is dense and full of foreboding shadows and before reaching the house made of confectionery, complete to the gingerbread and the cake. The sister-brother duo runs into several strange and threatening creatures and people, burgeon characters who ask Gretel with an Eleven/Jane Hopper (Millie Bobby Brown)-like hairdo embarrassing questions, resulting in the two young people storming away from the houses and forgetting their hunger and the need for a bed for those moments. However, the indigence cannot be shrugged away by fright, so they keep looking. There’s a scene where both are shown in a state where progressive dementia has begun to set in because of extreme hunger. They stop at a spot where there’s mushroom growth and once, Gretel has ‘spoken’ to the mushrooms, they eat those and then begin to hallucinate, with convoluted camera angles and jump-cuts of a hysterically laughing Gretel to Hansel staring straight into the camera as the background moves behind him, all of that in a PG-13 film, something that would be out of the question only ten years ago. Something similar, however, much more severe and profound and unmerciful is explored by Lukas Feigelfeld in his highly terrifying and powerful film, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, 2018.
The story of Hansel and Gretel is mainly credited by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm belonging to a catalog of folktale types from the collection Aarne–Thompson–Uther type 327A (Hänsel und Gretel), a collection dating back to the medieval times and acquired by the Brothers in 1809 at a party they attended. Approximated to be written sometime during the Late Middle Ages (1250-1500). Gretel’s pretense of not understanding how to test the oven (in a story from a similar source ‘Show Me How‘) is characteristic of 327A, amongst other themes, like celebrating the symbolic order of the patriarchal home, seen as a haven protected from the dangerous outside, while it systematically denigrates the adult female characters, which are seemingly intertwined between each other. Just like how it is in the works inspired by the original from the 1500s, including Robert Coover The Gingerbread House (Pricks and Descants, 1970), Anne Sexton in Transformations (1971), Garrison Keillor in My Grandmother, My Self in Happy to Be Here (1982), and Emma Donoghue in A Tale of the Cottage (Kissing the Witch, 1997). Even Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, 1994 had elements from the story borrowed from the ancient folklore.
What do the stories have in common, besides the intended patriarchal protection? The witch and the stepmother are the same people, the theme of child abandonment and abuse, due to famines, and lack of contraceptives. The children are usually deserted, in front of a church or forests, from where they cannot return. Here the horror is wickedly innate and manages to more than just strike a chord with the reader, the audience who feel for the children, especially now, when we have grown to learn how harsh the conditions were back then. It was very easy for a mother to lose her mind or a father to permanently shut a shrieking toddler, (The Nightingale, 2019) comes to mind immediately. A formidable film with vengeance on its head and the Aryan superiority getting the better of men, again (will they never learn?).
There’s another theme rampant in films that deal with witches and witchcraft, there’s the hair, and then there’s the duplicity of woman. The village outcast is provoked into becoming as evil as everyone believes her to be (one of the metaphors by which an entire narrative hangs like on a clothesline. And if not for the deep shadows and the calcining atmosphere of dread by cinematographer Galo Olivares, the rumbling sound design, and the dissonant droning soundtrack, the chilling and frightening and the spot-on score by Robin Coudert, Gretel & Hansel would have been lost in a void of the structurally and virtuously hollow narrative.
However, the wary yet inquisitive performance by Sophia Lillis (IT, 2017) as Gretel and the sincerity, candor dripping from every word that the young Hansel says, saves it from completely taking a nosedive into pedestrian territory. However, the set design, the medieval occultism, the way they speak, the basement, and the roasted boar save it from fully going South and stops somewhere in the middle with Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact, 1996) as an extremely convincing and gothic Hoida, also articulated and calculating and famished herself, delivering solid ideals through her interpretation of being a witch. There was Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, 2015) and Philip the Damn Goat and then there was the brooding, repulsive, deeply unsettling performance by the very pretty, Aleksandra Cwen as Alburn in Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, a truly masterful film, more than just an answer to Eggers’ The Witch, with its own share of slow-burn scares that become way too revulsive by the time the lengthy feature has come to an acid-kaleidoscopic end.
Here, in Gretel and Hansel, the music is very essential in creating and a tendency towards structure and abstraction. Add rich visuals and a constant sense of trepidation to that and we have a fine horror film on our hands. A fine horror picture, which rushes up its ending and therefore falls prey to the generic. Nevertheless, so much has happened by now that the blue flames do not matter, Hansel sitting in a corner and staring at the wall – just like Joshua in The Blair Witch Project, 1999, or the remake where Lane (Wes Robinson) is shown doing just that.
Just keep in mind that we are in an impenetrable, thick forest from where we do not know our way out; keep this in mind too: the word apprentice gives the keen viewer the heebie-jeebies, in this wretched geometrical place, where the triangle and the eye are most prominent from the time the film started. Beware of the occult compositions, dipped in goth and makeup that deserves an Oscar. Be very careful as you tread the PG-13 titled film, for it may turn out to be misleading; the rating by the MPAA. While compromising on some of the characteristics that make the well-know bed-time story so admired by parents and children alike, “it helps me go to sleep“, cinematographer Olivares and Perkins make this a mysterious story, a fresh take on an age-old narrative, which has never stopped fascinating and horror-struck, just like how Nana (Deanna Dunagan) innocently asks Becca (Olivia DeJonge) to inspect the oven from the inside in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, 2015. And yes, trusting the darkness, even maybe embracing it with full enthusiasm, does not give the film a formation that could hold the first two halves entirely on its own. Yes, the emphasis on mood and atmosphere overwhelms the scares, but the fact of the matter remains that the climate is thick with terror and agitation and an old hag doing things with a tree branch that no old woman should be doing in front of a teenager, it was perverse, sensual in the entirety of context. It also deals with superstition and an archaic society’s destructive distrust of women; again a theme bigger than it’s innocuous PG-13 tag.
A similar scene was showcased in The Witch and here it is toned down for two reasons; one for the MPAA and the other reason being that the first scene was too dark, too nude, and too sexual, too damn repulsive. Not that Gretel & Hansel is any less sexual, but hey, they can be termed as fascinating movie choices made by director Perkins and his team, who all speak as if they are in the court of King Henry VI, in a Sixteenth-Century Great Britain irked by plagues, sickness. Some land was used for (fishing/farming) but most of it was wasteland or (woodland/Disneyland). Nine out of ten people lived in the countryside and grew their own food. Villein labor service largely disappeared, to be replaced by copyhold tenure.
Stylish, scary, funny, dark, superbly creepy, and overall entertaining, Gretel & Hansel scares and enthralls in equal dosages with its extremely leisurely pacing, however when it comes to visceral shocks, it requires the keen viewer to be patient and experience the moment just like Gretel does. Dreadful, eerie yet too unlettered to truly scare. This film isn’t there to make a point or perhaps prove two, it’s there simply to mostly scare the little ones and refresh our memory.
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