The current trend of modern horror has been to adopt the appearance of the specific genre classification of “elevated horror”. Pioneered in popularity mostly by horror films under the A24 umbrella including The Witch, It Comes at Night, and Hereditary, among many others, the term “elevated horror” has been a phrase coined in order to appear to give more critical legitimacy to the horror genre. Usually, these movies tend to share similar qualities such as a focus on building atmospheric tension as opposed to typical jump scares, slower pacing, symmetrical framing within its cinematography, all of which result in inadvertently alienating the average moviegoer expecting a traditional scary movie. It’s somewhat of a backhanded compliment towards an entire genre to imply that a movie with intentional pacing, a haunting atmosphere, and well-composed cinematography is elevating a genre that is built upon those exact qualities.
Could it be that our expectations for mainstream horror in recent years have gotten so low that we just naturally accept it as an inherently trashy genre, and we’re shocked whenever a movie in the genre that employs good filmmaking techniques comes along? Would horror classics that we consider staples of the genre like The Shiningor The Exorcist be met with that same reaction if they had been released today?
In the further attempts to make this style of horror filmmaking more accessible to the wider movie-going public, we now haveGretel & Hansel, a darker retelling of the classic fairy tale directed by Oz Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter). Told more so from the perspective of Gretel (Sophia Lillis), the film follows the brother and sister pair as they stumble upon the house of an evil witch in the middle of the forest in their search of food and shelter.
Lillis has been making a name for herself in the modern horror landscape ever since her breakout performance as young Bev Marsh in the IT movies. Her best efforts to carry this movie are admirable, yet unfortunately do not amount to much of a compelling lead performance considering the quality of material that she is given to work with, as well as the delayed awkward stiltedness in the direction of dialogue scenes. It also doesn’t help that her scene partner for the majority of the film, Samuel Leakey as Hansel, is unfortunately not as experienced as an actor to help sell that sibling connection as Lillis is trying to. The only other prominent acting presence in the film is Alice Krige as the witch whose over-the-top deliciously evil demeanor provides a layer of campy enjoyment but severely clashes with the grim and sinister seriousness of the film’s tone.
The tone and style of the film draw clear influences from films like The Witch, given its attention to period detail, symmetrically framed cinematography, and lack of indulgence in conventional jump scares. All of which are admirable qualities for a mainstream horror movie to adopt, and in some ways refreshing compared to what we’re used to seeing, but what this film lacks that the films of Robert Eggers or Ari Aster have that ultimately make them work are harrowing lead performances which we are able to experience anguish through, a haunting atmosphere to engross us in the setting, and relevant themes that give the story more lasting impact beyond just immediate shock and terror. Even if certain viewers might not always find these types of films necessarily scary in the traditional sense, there’s a level of filmmaking prowess and technical craftsmanship on display that warrants them as still being valuable films outside of solely the genre which they inhabit.
Gretel & Hansel manages to emulate the surface-level aesthetics of such movies, but without much of a compelling story or engaging performances to hold it all together, the intended effects end up getting lost in the execution. The result is an A24-lite slog that mistakes slow pacing for tension-building, but without much of a suspenseful payoff.
Review: Gretel & Hansel
Despite surface-level aesthetics resembling the elevated horror genre Gretel & Hansel offers little more than a pale imitation of the genre's best features