Here’s Horror royalty: the classic “fairy tale” from the Brothers Grimm, directed by Oz Perkins, son of the one and only Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho). Oz is also an actor – he appeared as the young Norman Bates in Psycho II.
The witch, bloodthirsty and cannibalistic, is in many ways the exemplar of what Barbara Creed calls the monstrous feminine – and her victims are most often children, which is perhaps why children love stories about witches. Some adults dismiss children’s stories as light-weight and simplistic. But kids interpret the world through what they see, and the stories they hear. What kids understand is their own powerlessness – parents and teachers have control, and their youthful grasp of justice can make that seem uncomfortable or even intolerable. The bildungsroman, the coming of age story, is all about finding their power, in the face of seemingly inexorable oppression.
The usual title of this story is Hansel and Gretel, the 1812 Grimm story of the children who are abandoned in the forest and find an enchanted gingerbread house in which lives a cannibalistic witch, who fattens up Hansel for her dinner. The story is an important one in cannibal studies – even Hannibal quotes it from time to time.
Perkins has reversed the title deliberately to make Gretel (Sophia Lillis from It) the older child, a girl on the verge of womanhood, who must unwillingly take responsibility for her little brother Hansel (Sam Leakey in his debut role), see through the deceptions and dangers of adults, and make decisions that can be literally life and death, eater or eaten.
There is a fairy story within the story:
“The beautiful child in her little pink cap”
It tells of a little girl who was saved from a fatal illness by an enchantress, but,
The child was granted second sight. People came to hear what she saw, but did not like what she said.
She had other powers, and could deliver death to anyone, even her own father.
Fairy stories have morals, and the moral of the beautiful child, and Hansel and Gretel, is
Their mother sends them out to offer her services to a local lecher, who takes advantage of a “terrible pestilence” (sounds familiar) and asks the young girl
Furious at Gretel’s refusal to sell her body to help with the finances, the mother chases them out with an axe. Their world, once they are alone, is one of mystery, magic and terror. “The big, bad world opened up in front of us…”
There is plenty of intertextual humour to keep us guessing: Gretel is a sassy American, with strong views on the feudal class system.
Hansel is a cheeky English boy. They are rescued from an ogre by a huntsman, who tells them if they stray from their path, they can expect to meet wolves (a reference to a different cannibal story called “Little Red Riding Hood”.)
They find the gingerbread house, well, at least it smells of cake (and bacon, says Hansel). Inside is a table groaning with an abundance of food. Gifts!
There’s a witch of course, named Holda (Alice Krige, the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact) who is charming and courteous. She plucks a strand of Hansel’s hair as he hoes into dinner, and sniffs it, like Hannibal sniffing Will Graham.
What can I say – she loves children!
But there is much more to this story (both stories). Is she “the beautiful child” of the internal fairy story? She senses that Gretel has second sight and magical powers. In the house, in dreams or in second sight, Gretel sees several children who appear out of mirrors.
Gretel is vegetarian, while Hansel likes his meat; at eight he is already imbued with carnivorous virility.
The witch, Holda, is not impressed, pointing out that “the ox, with his vegetable-made bones pulls the cart and the fat man who sits atop it!” She is dismissive of his carnivorous virility. Of course, we have to wonder, as Gretel does, where all the meat and milk come from, considering there are no animals on the property. Except for human ones. Are our cities any different?
Gretel starts to appreciate her powers, and the abundance they will offer her.
“This is your power. To see what is hidden and to take it. A small mind believes only what it can see. But we know that we are our fate’s own masters, don’t we?”
Hansel remembers Gretel’s lessons:
“You always say there aren’t any gifts in this world. That nothing is given without something taken away.”
To take on her full powers, Gretel realises that she’ll need to lose Hansel, who is a burden. The witch warns that
“he’ll soon come to fear you, as all men should if they’re smart.”
We only see Holda eat once, and when she finishes, she pulls out of her mouth a long lock of blonde hair with a little bow on the end. Well, we guessed what she ate, especially if we ever quaked through a Brothers Grimm story or two.
The witch in psychoanalytic terms is the oral-sadistic mother, and Creed calls her an “implacable enemy of the symbolic order”, because she demonstrates its frailty. Holda at first seems maternal – she offers the lost children food and shelter, but the fact that they can so quickly end up in that food warns us of that frailty – she reminds us that we, too, are edible animals.
Gretel soon finds out where all the food is coming from.
The witch tells her the real story of the beautiful child and of her power. Gretel has achoice – will she take the gift and pay the price? But hey, no spoilers. See the movie to find out what Gretel decides. It’s worth it.
The reviewer on RogerEbert.com called it:
“the kind of low-key gem that horror fans are always looking for but so rarely find—one that is smartly conceived, visually stylish and genuinely creepy at times.”
The story is even more relevant than it was when the movie was made (or the Grimms wrote it down) because of the weird conspiracy theories circulating in the USA about politicians torturing and killing children in the basements of pizza restaurants in order to harness their youthful energies. But leaving aside the magic and the second sight, isn’t the cynical utilisation of the young the basis of advertising, wars and agriculture? Society is built on the exploitation and sometimes the slaughter and consumption of the innocent.
The cinematography of this film is splendid, and the actors are sensational, particularly G&H despite, or perhaps because of, their youth. Overall, a very satisfying reboot of a classic cannibalism story.