In the style of the Grim fairy tale, the land of long ago is in serious famine. At the home of Gretel (Sophia Lillis), who for the sake of the movie is a teenager, and Hansel (Samuel Leakey), their mother (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) is losing her shit after the patriarch has gone on to his reward. So she boots the kids out, inviting them to dig a grave for her while they’re digging their own. You know, typical fairy tale mom. Gretel is unperturbed, because childhood is a fairly recent sociological invention. She and Hansel wind up in the forest looking for work, and find a cottage full of food. The Witch (Alice Krige) who lives there is cool with letting them stay, and happily teaches Gretel woman stuff like cleaning and herbs and telekinetic Jedi skills. Both children eventually sense that something is off (like how she always has food despite never buying or growing or breeding any), but the Witch is not prepared to let them go so easily.
It’s directed by Osgood Perkins, who did I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Basically, he’s the master of gothic, psychological, and moody films. This one is no exception. The tone is dark, the lighting is dark, and the overall essence is that of despair. It lightens up a bit eventually, but it’s pretty bleak. When apprenticing with a witch in otherwise total isolation is the best option for a character, when abundance is something to be afraid and suspicious of, times are pretty rough. It performed fairly well with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but not as much with fans. Pretentious is a word that’s bounced around a lot regarding Perkins’s films. I’m not saying I agree; I’m saying it’s hard to miss the continuous image system of triangles, but I have no idea what they mean.
In my review of The Turning, I griped about it being considered feminist. (It’s easy to associate the two movies, as both feature a lead actor from the It reboot saddled with a needy younger sibling.) This however is a film you could consider feminist, or at least an exploration of the shittiness of gender roles. Being a female of her times, Gretel is not given a multitude of options for living her best life. As the Witch cackles when Gretel addresses her as “Missus,” “You think I’m married? See you a ball and chain at my heel?” Prior to being forcefully evacuated from her home, Gretel is sent to see Master Stripp (Donncha Crowley) about housekeeping work. He leers at her, remarking “You will do well to limit the number of words that come out of your mouth.” After insisting that she address him as “Milord,” he inquires as to whether she’s still a virgin. Surprisingly, Gretel doesn’t stick around for such a tantalizing job. (See, this is how you point out sexual abuse is a thing in a feminist way–Gretel would rather let her family starve than be harassed.)
Meanwhile, the male characters are less awesome. In addition to Stripp and a parade of dead dads, Hansel is pretty useless. His main goal in life is to chop stuff with an axe, and he’s quite terrible at it. The Witch pokes fun at how he blames the trees’ strength for his own weakness, and points out how he’s a burden on Gretel (which Gretel secretly agrees with). There is one cool guy in the movie, for all of less than ten minutes. The first house Gretel and Hansel crash in is occupied by some kind of screaming humanoid creature, and the Huntsman (Charles Babalola) appears and kills it. He then proceeds to put the kids up for the night and let them eat his dinner. When Gretel is skeptical of his motives, he assures her that altruism will bring him good karma and being a shitty person hurts everybody, even the shitty person. A philosophy of self-sacrifice and kindness is pretty much the opposite of what the Witch is selling (and kinda traditionally feminine); she’s all about sacrificing whoever stands in her way (kinda traditionally masculine).
Lots of reviewers complained it was boring. The pacing is a bit slow. For much of the movie, the Witch actually seems pretty okay. She’s kind and nourishing to the kids, especially in counterpoint to dear old Mom. She’s teaching Gretel how to develop her personal power and become her “fate’s own master.” This really could have been a whole different, non-horror movie about women making life choices that actually benefit themselves. But then there’s some blahdy-blah about kids’ trapped souls, it’s all very Coraline. There’s even a mystery closet. I didn’t find it boring per se; there is a building sense of dread throughout and some creepy images. It’s unpredictable for the most part.
Overall, I was glad I’d watched it, even if I didn’t exactly enjoy it. Some parts irked me, like Gretel and Hansel’s habit of bolstering each other’s moods by snorting like a pig. Or the fact that Gretel sounds American even though it’s a period piece, which means that regardless of era or geography, everyone must have an English accent. Every other person has at least a vaguely European voice except her. And the scene when she barks at Hansel, “Fall quiet, boy!” bothers me to no end. The dialogue bounces back and forth between wannabe medieval and Victorian. Anywho, gripes aside, check it out if you’re in the mood for something unsettling and thoughtful.