Gretel & Hansel: A Grim Fairy Tale is Oz Perkins’s follow up to the imperfect I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and the very perfect The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Perkins has made his name out of elegiac, elegant horror films that focus on the experience of female victims and female monsters, and while his work is not always successful in its attempts to inject grotesque lyricism into horror, it is always interesting.As, indeed, is this one, a retelling of the story of two little children who find a witch’s home in the woods, eat too much, and nearly get baked. Gretel & Hansel recasts the familiar narrative into a semi-feminist coming of age story, of a girl growing into her power as a woman and having to make some stark choices about who she wants to be.
The plot follows the basic outline of the fairy tale as we know it: Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Sam Leakey) are forced from their home by poverty and illness to wander in the woods. They come upon a Huntsman (Charles Babalola), who gives them directions to a group of foresters where they might find work and shelter. But they’re diverted from the path by a witch’s cottage, inhabited by Holda (Alice Krige), who feeds them sweets and gives them beds for the night. Hansel is overjoyed, but the elder Gretel is wary of gifts given by old ladies in the woods. We know where this is going.
Gretel’s own favorite fairy tale opens and informs the narrative: the story of a young girl saved from death by an enchantress and given the gift of second sight. When the girl turns evil and begins killing people in her own right, she’s taken to the middle of the woods and abandoned. As Gretel’s narrative proceeds, the fairy tale returns in different forms, changing her and the film itself in subtle ways.
A major difference between the film and the original story, however, are the ages of Gretel and Hansel, with Gretel an older girl moving toward womanhood (one scene involves her getting her period and having odd dreams as a result), and Hansel an annoying younger brother to whom she’s bound, by love but also by duty. Thus the story becomes more about Gretel being forced by circumstances to care for her own brother as her son, lacking the freedom to make her own decisions, and hobbled by her femininity and her class in a patriarchal culture. She’s unable to find work to help support her brother and mother without sacrificing her body, and she and her brother are dependent on the kindness of strangers in the woods. Holda, naturally, offers Gretel an alternative to dependency and victimhood: the freedom of monstrous power that comes with a price.
This victim/monster dichotomy has formed the heart of a number of feminist horror narratives: The Love Witch, The Witch, The Babadook, Suspiria and Perkins’s own The Blackcoat’s Daughter typify the position of women in relationship to evil. Faced with the choice between being a victim and being a monster, female characters have increasingly chosen monstrosity, no longer accepting male-dominated binaries that require them to remain good, dependent, and suffering.
Gretel & Hansel attempts to offer a third option through Gretel’s development, but there’s an uncertainty at the heart of that prevents it from coming to fruition. Holda is not quite evil – she’s more of a Baba Yaga figure, a clever, dangerous, powerful old woman in the woods who offers power and freedom at a price. But while the film dwells solidly in the realm of feminine power, it also fails to construct it coherently. Gretel apparently wants the power that Holda offers, but Holda herself is never represented attractively, either in terms of her physicality or in terms of the power she wields. Her demands on Gretel become increasingly repulsive, and the power she has remains nebulous and confusing. Gretel seeks an alternative from the obligation she feels towards her brother on the one hand, and the sacrifices for power that Holda requires on the other. But the film fails to coherently present that middle ground, unable to divorce itself from the main narrative of the fairy tale. What’s more, it relies on the usual tropes about witches without bending them much, if at all. Women are dangerous, it seems to say, and old women are not to be trusted.
There are many promises in the film, even if it doesn’t completely fulfill them. Perkins is deft at creating haunting images, from the witch’s cottage (not the gingerbread house of our childhoods), to the starkly grotesque experiences of the children on their way through the woods. Gretel & Hansel comes off as a failed but honest attempt to do something new with a well-worn fairy tale – a gorgeous piece of art coupled with an interesting idea that just doesn’t quite work. Its problematics don’t condemn it, but the lack of coherence in both narrative and theme make it a minor work at best.