Though, considering how marginalized the film is, I suppose ‘defend’ is a bit hyperbolic (in which case, so is ‘polarizing’). So, since everyone else’s reactions to Gretel & Hansel were unenthusiastic, lemme inject some passion into this non-existent debate: It’s on the shortlist (the very, very short list) of movies that actually scare me.
I’ve got a soft spot for inconsequential little movies like Gretel & Hansel; the kinda movies people throw away - not out of hatred, per se, but more so out of indifference. And it’s worth noting the exact flavor of the indifferent attitudes toward the film: a lotta “hmmms” and “huhs” upon its initial release, as in: “that movie was kinda odd and interesting but nobody else seems to care, so let’s not talk about it.” No, please, let’s.
I could go into a big thing about modern horror and how Oz Perkins fits into this new fabric of slowburn, atmosphere-driven pastiches, but I won’t. All I’ll say is this: the ethos of Perkins’ films is relatively indistinct from his peers’, but there’s nevertheless something noticeably idiosyncratic about his directorial approach to these so-called pastiches.
In other words, I found Gretel & Hansel to be more memorable than, say, The Witch.
Some movies you revisit again and again in an effort to understand why you dislike them, until one day you realize that you love them. To be fair to this movie, I never disliked it, but my feelings were definitely mixed. And to be fair to myself, I predicted early on that it could feasibly overtake Blackcoat’s Daughter as my favorite Perkins film. Alas, it has climbed much higher than that...
Based on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, audiences generally praised the movie’s cinematography (because that’s the term laypeople use for anything visual) but complained about the thin story. I used to sympathize with these criticisms; I remember thinking - and probably saying - that if Suspiria had been directed like G&H it would be an all-time favorite. Talk about missing what’s right in front of you: is Suspiria remembered for anything other than its sights and sounds? Sure, the characters aren’t worth much, but from that same vantage, Forrest Gump isn’t very scary. You can’t expect a film to do more than its job. People hold certain movies to promises they didn’t keep: G&H was sold as “unnerving” and “spooky,” two adjectives it earns in spades.
That may even be the point here: forget comparative arguments or the genre as a whole; what else could you want from this movie?
The marketing painted a succinct, spot-on picture of what you were gonna get: “more of this.” The trailers were so succinct, in fact, that the movie itself feels like an extension of them -- a longer, meatier riff on that same kind of abstraction. Some genres benefit from that, speaking in macrocosmic terms again for a moment - namely, horror and comedy.
On the other hand, we all know those movies that should’ve probably just been trailers (Hereditary, Us, It Follows). But what if, instead of the overly cerebral approach those movies took, they went the opposite direction and embraced barebones simplicity?
Audiences would probably be pretty frustrated...
But weren’t they already?
I don’t sympathize with the categorization of Blumhouse movies as “dumb.” I mean, yeah, of course they are dumb, but to me that’s just a consequence of their biggest drawback: unnecessary plotting. My hope for the future of the genre is less story, though that seems increasingly unlikely.
That’s not to discount the handful of great horror scripts that came out of the 2010s - Mike Flanagan is invaluable. But horror is a director’s game, and Flanagan is a writer first and foremost, which makes him an anomaly. So, as long as the genre is gonna remain a sandbox for ‘edgy arthouse’ I’d rather we just dispense with the pretense of plot.
I mentioned earlier that modern horror is atmosphere-driven, and that’s cool; I’ll accept that. But what I really look forward to is the day that horror is composition-driven. As for Gretel & Hansel, the atmosphere is not only a driving force, it’s more potent than anything A24 or NEON have produced. The smoggy photography and severe lenses make for less of a ‘spin’ on the classic fairytale and more of a gnarled twist - like grown-up Sleepy Hollow suspended in formaldehyde.
And yet, the compositions are the scariest part of the film!
But what about the movie’s flaws? Well, keep a lookout for it in the next installment of Good Movies With Bad Opening Title Sequences...