GRETEL & HANSEL (2020) harbours a creepy atmosphere but suffers from messy storytelling

Gretel & Hansel flips the well-known fairytale on its head, delivering a dark and gritty retelling designed to unsettle and disturb you. It does this successfully through its visuals, but fails to deliver a compelling and coherent story.

Gretel & Hansel kicks off quite well, setting a grim tone similar to 2015’s The Witch and 2018’s Hereditary. The only difference here is that those films both have rich stories to back up the dark tone, whereas this film is bit of a mess. The story sets itself up really well and it hooks you in early as it sets up the path for the lead characters. From here, it’s building suspense and upping the creepiness successfully but through the second act it becomes very uneventful, less engaging and more confusing. I found myself gradually becoming less engaged with each passing scene, to the point of being bored right as the climax kicked into gear.

The reason it begins, and continues, to lose its grasp on what it sets up is that the story feels overly muddled and confusing. Writer Rob Hayes has tried to vastly expand the lore of the fairytale, bringing in a number of new elements that enhance the creepiness but don’t actually do the story any favours. It feels like there’s a lot of lore and moving parts being thrown around and it almost completely lost me around half way through. It feels like it’s a lot more complex than it needs to be, and complexity doesn’t always make a great story. There’s a whole supernatural angle related to figures in the forest and how that’s connected to the witch, but it was all too messy to follow.

Where the story is a major disappointment, the horror elements are well handled and the visuals are spectacular. The film is made up predominantly of atmospheric horror, and that really works here. It builds a creepy atmosphere that looms over the entire film, so even when the story isn’t engaging there’s still an unsettling vibe that retains some of the tension. So much of the horror is delivered through imagery alone, such as looming figures in the background or disturbing content, and that’s the stuff that I feel works the most. It’s just unfortunate that the story couldn’t back this up.

The biggest highlight of the film is undoubtedly Galo Olivares‘ absolutely stunning cinematography. Every shot feels like it’s composed to perfection, framed in a way that complements and enhances the unsettling tone. The use of symmetry and lighting to emphasise certain details is cleverly executed, creating a number of absolutely beautiful shots. The visual symbolism is another element that adds layers to the film without further complicating the story, such as the appearance of triangles in a number of places. It’s those smaller details that make a film feel more complete.

In terms of the performances, they’re mostly just okay. I really like Alice Krige in her role as the witch, she does a great job at giving off a haunting vibe, while also coming across as inviting enough to believe these kids would stay with her. In terms of Sophia Lillis as Gretel, I didn’t love her performance. I’ve liked Sophia in IT (2017) and I Am Not Okay with This (2020), but I feel like she doesn’t have the ability to deliver a compelling, emotional performance on the scale of what this film needed. She delivers her lines and sells the fear in her character quite well, I just think the gravity and weight of her performance is missing. I am still really looking forward to her future projects as she’s proven she can be a star in other projects.

In the end, Gretel & Hansel suffers from a messy narrative that fails to remain engaging beyond the end of the first act. The film is still unsettling and the atmospheric horror is successful in building a creepy tone that lasts through the majority of the film. Despite the creepiness, if there isn’t a strong story to back it up, it doesn’t mean that much. The cinematography and visual symbolism is spectacular and definitely the biggest redeeming quality for what is an okay movie. For a horror film similar in tone to this, but much better, look into The Witch and Hereditary that were mentioned earlier or, for something similar on Netflix, check out The Ritual.


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