Oz Perkins’ sumptuous spine-tingler makes for impressive home viewing
There’s something immediately gripping about the dark woods of a fairy tale. The terror, the mystery, the call of the void…it all appeals to both childlike curiosity and mature, elemental fear. It’s a trope that’s found recent revival in the films of Robert Eggers and Ari Aster, as well as in Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy; in these works, the woods’ more sinister possibilities are made manifest, giving our innermost fears a tangibility that thankfully never betrayed their more ambiguous possibilities.
Like his fellow directors above, Oz Perkins’ films share the same love for elemental terror — and, if one can believe it, Perkins’ work manages to be far more understated than others in its company. The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House are two sublimely sinister films that linger in darkness and silence, reveling in the unnerving, patient dread evoked in each moment. I wouldn’t have pegged a film like Gretel & Hansel to be Oz Perkins’ first big-budget feature, but it’s well within his wheelhouse. It’s his signature taut, slow-burn horror on a much grander scale, and a film that taps into childhood nightmares in a beautifully phantasmagorical and mature way.
With some of the best-designed and shot scenes of 2020 so far, it’s certainly a film that doesn’t lack in the production design or cinematography departments. Each scene is draped in Argento technicolor or rich flickering dapples of black and ochre, toeing a fine line between the whimsy of the cradle and the cynicism of the grave. But when the film stuffs high-reaching influences that range from contemporaries like Eggers to legends like Jodorowsky in the span of a slim 82 minutes (without credits), it’s easy to call Gretel & Hansel overbrimming with style with little substance.
But there’s far more in mind for Perkins and screenwriter Rob Hayes for them to be contained within the gentle trappings of a Brothers Grimm story. The world Gretel & Hansel constructs feels out of time; not quite Medieval, not quite Victorian, but everything feels like it’s been neglected since those times. The world operates on an spare balance of give-and-take, and relationships from master/servant to parent/child are as transactional and unforgiving as they can be. Kindness is foreign here, an act that when given inspires as much dread as the monsters that lurk in the woods around our central characters. Notably, women feel destined for four distinct roles: the convent, the courtesan, the caregiver, or the crone. In a similar vein, the men of this film (aside from Charles Babalola’s kind woodsman) all feel destined for indulging their brutish masculinity. It’s when Gretel (It’s Sophia Lillis) and her brother (Samuel J. Leakey) are caught at the crossroads of all four and she comes across Alice Krige’s magnificently malevolent witch that she first believes another path may be possible for her — one that requires just as much of a connection with elemental power as that held by the monsters she fears.
It’s the malignant beauty of the Witch’s world that makes Perkins and Hayes’ Go-To-100 stylistic approach wondrously click into place, showing that the world does contain a natural beauty, one that can restore the souls of those living within it if they bothered to listen to its call. It’s the choice to use this natural wonder towards wicked ends that makes such awe-inspiring sights poisonous and even more seductive. The flourishes of Gretel & Hansel are the natural evolution of Perkins’ brooding darkness; it’s evil with the insidious ability to disguise itself in what we love and crave. It’s fair to say this story has been told countless times, and the film’s voiceover feels extremely like a last-minute Blade Runner-esque addition to make the film easier for audiences to digest. But Perkins and Hayes’ visually stunning, dread-soaked approach makes this Grimm adaptation as compelling to watch as ever.
While Gretel & Hansel was truly amazing to watch on the big screen during its unfortunately short theatrical run, Orion and Warner Bros. have created quite a stellar presentation of Oz Perkins’ film on Blu-ray.
Orion and Warner Bros. present Gretel & Hansel in a 1080p master presentation, and preserves the film’s shifting 2.65:1 & 1.55:1 aspect ratios. Accompanying the visuals are DTS-HD 5.1 Surround English and English Descriptive-Audio tracks and a Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish-language track. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are provided for the feature.
As stated earlier, Gretel & Hansel has some seriously impressive cinematography, all of which is beautifully on display with this transfer. From the layered textures of leaves falling in the woods, to the inky reflections of gritty stone walls in pooling blood, Gretel & Hansel certainly makes for addictive eye candy. The rich, synthesizer-based score by Robin Coudert (ROB) makes for immersive, spine-tingling listening, and well compliments the eerie rustles and echoes of the film’s sound design.
- Storybook: What’s odder than Gretel & Hansel’s lack of special features is the presence of this motion comic book, one that boils down Perkins’ already-trim film into 5 minutes of forgettable content. It’s crazy that this is the kind of content used to promote the film — though when Gretel & Hansel is more atmosphere than audience-packing jump-scares, it’s understandable that its studio backers may have been at a loss as to just how to market Perkins and Hayes’ specific take on a well-worn store.
While the lack of supplemental content is disappointing, revisiting Gretel & Hansel definitely isn’t. With its trim runtime and rich well of compelling visuals and ideas, Gretel & Hansel makes for a great purchase and far more rewarding rewatches.
Gretel & Hansel is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Orion Pictures and Warner Bros. Entertainment.