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CINEMA: Bitches Brew

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GRETEL & HANSEL (directed by Oz Perkins, 97 minutes, USA, 2020)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Gretel & Hansel, the new film by director Oz Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter), is an eye-dazzling new take on the Brothers Grim classic. Gretel is played by Sophia Lillis whose complex and remarkably empowering take on Beverly Marsh in 2017’s It was easily one of the best parts of that adaptation. While this recent subgenre of expanding on these familiar stories we thought we knew is nothing new, rarely do we see them take the approach on screen here. The film’s visual palette channels Robert Eggers (The Witch) and Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain).

In this iteration, Hansel & Gretel are forced out of their home by their mentally ill mother who is haunted by the ghost of their deceased father. Gretel is portrayed as an older teen on the cusp of womanhood and Hansel is the much younger brother who she has been tasked with raising since the decline of their mother. They escape into the forest and begin their quest for a new home with the hope of finding a group of kindly woodsman or a convent to take them in. After traveling for some time without food or water, the duo unwittingly eat some psychedelic mushrooms and after tripping their brains out happen upon the witch’s cottage. While the witch is definitely sticking to the Grimm’s script with her cannibalistic plans for Hansel, she sees something of herself in Gretel and decides to groom her as an apprentice instead of eating her. It all boils down to the fiercely independent Gretel — hence the reversed name order of the title — who has to choose between inheriting the witch’s dark power or the saving the life of her younger brother.

The film is visually striking with its orange-and-blue-hued phantasmagorical world and skin-crawlingly creepy production design, and its semi-grounded depiction of witchcraft gives the narrative a bit more believeability and weight. Borrowing a page from The Witch, the film deploys witchcraft as a metaphor for Gretel’s ascent into womanhood and explores feminism in a time when that is simply unheard of. This gambit is further enhanced by the naïve childlike stupidity of Hansel who just can’t understand why his sister must always be “difficult.”  I went into Gretel & Hansel expecting a Blumhouse-eque haunted house take on the fairytale filled with jump scares and mind-numbing gore — which in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. But I was pleasantly surprised when the film turned out to be an eerily effective slow burn that utilizes the tropes of horror to weave a densely layered coming-of-age fairy tale. Sophia Lillis once again shows she’s one of the best young leading ladies out there, turning in a nuanced and empathetic performance as a young woman who is just trying to grow up and keep her brother safe in the big bad world. As such, Oz Perkins’ update makes the story relevant to today’s audiences, while still remaining true to the grim intent of the Grimm brothers’ ur-text.

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