The Beautiful Child: GRETEL AND HANSEL (Osgood Perkins, 2020)

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.

2020: The Year in Cannibalism

2020 assailed us with fires, floods, famine and pestilence (both the pandemic and political varieties). The power of nature was demonstrated in several forms: in the massive power of storms, floods and fires, and the microscopically small virus that crippled the world economy and killed (probably well over) 1,700,000 people (so far). Our faith in being the masters of this planet and the manipulators of the natural world was finally shaken. We were toppled from our declared place at the top of the food chain by a miniscule virus that used our own cells as food to proliferate. We, like the animals we breed and kill by the billions, became fodder, not just to viruses, but occasionally to other humans. Some reported cases of alleged, proven or suspected cannibalism from 2020 are listed below. How many more are still unknown? Considering the hundreds of thousands of people who go missing each year, that is anyone’s guess.

I am well aware that, as I write this, there are still a handful of days to go in the year, and there is a good chance 2020 may still have some more surprises for us. But anyway (as far as I know), this is the year 2020 in cannibal news.

Note: 2020 saw reports about the guy who allegedly hung his Grindr date upside down, cut off his testicles and ate them, but he is not counted here as he did it last Christmas eve, which technically was still 2019.

2020: INDIA

A blind couple in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur district allegedly had a seven-year-old girl killed so they could eat her organs, as they believed that this would result in them having a child. Police said that a seven-year-old girl had gone missing on the night of Diwali on Saturday. Her blood-stained body was recovered from a field near the village on Sunday.  ”Several organs of the body were missing….her stomach had been ripped open” and the girl was also raped before being brutally murdered.

How UP's Badhras Was Left Jolted by the Horror of Cannibalism on Diwali Night

2020: GERMANY

On 8 November a hiker came upon the skeletal remains of a human leg in a field on the northern outskirts of Berlin. Investigators discovered bite marks on the bones, though they said it was still unclear if they were human or from another animal. A 41-year-old man was arrested at his home close to the site where the victim’s bones were found, on suspicion of murder with sexual motives. “The suspect had an interest in cannibalism,” Berlin prosecutors’ office spokesman Martin Steltner said. “He searched online for the topic.” Well really, who hasn’t?

'CANNIBAL': Teacher Stefan R, pictured, is suspected of killing a man he met on a dating site
Suspect, a teacher known as Stefan R.

Because the alleged killer and victim met on an on-line dating site, reports of the arrest have evoked parallels to the infamous case of the “Rotenburg cannibal”. In 2006, a German court convicted Armin Meiwes of murder and disturbing the peace for killing a man he had met online and eating him. Meiwes is serving a life sentence.

2020: RUSSIA

66-year-old Viktor Zakharov was arrested on suspicion of three murders after a severed penis was found in his garden in the Siberian village of Severnoye. Skeletal remains of two other men were subsequently found under his floorboards. Authorities are investigating whether the scrap metal collector ate the men. He is now also being investigated concerning the disappearance of 14-year-old Alexey Bakun in 2012.

Alleged cannibal arrested after severed penis found in garden

2020: UKRAINE

A 41-year-old Ukrainian admitted that he killed his girlfriend, then fried and ate her legs after the two had a drinking session at home on April 13. He hid the rest of her body in the reeds of a nearby river, where it was found the next day by a father taking his two children for a stroll. Officers ambushed Oleksandr in his home and found him frying flesh from his girlfriend’s leg before eating it. Local reports said the police felt sick after witnessing the horrific scene. According to Ukrainian media, Oleksandr cooked his girlfriend’s legs and ate them after he reportedly ‘got hungry’.

A 41-year-old man (left), identified only as Oleksandr, admitted to killing his girlfriend (pictured) and cooking her legs after feeling hungry during their drinking party in Ukraine

Also in Ukraine, Maxim and Yaroslav Kostyukov, 42 and 21, were convicted of killing Yevgeny ‘Zhenya’ Petrov, 45. The three had been drinking together when a row developed over the conflict between Kiev’s army and pro-Moscow rebels in the eastern part of the country. A court heard how the son had held Petrov from behind while the father stabbed him twice in the chest. Yaroslav Kostyukov then beheaded the victim and cut flesh from the corpse as well as his heart, kidneys, liver and other internal organs. He confessed to cooking the meat which was served when the father and son hosted a homeless man called Yura. Prosecutor Oksana Karnaukh said: “There is no such crime as cannibalism listed in the Criminal Code of Ukraine.” The pair were, however, charged with murder and aggravating circumstances committed by a group of persons, and illegal possession of arms. And, presumably, legs.

Father and son cannibals admit to eating former policeman
Father and son cannibals who beheaded an ex-cop and cooked his meat and organs.

2020: USA

In Oklahoma, a hospital admitted a severely bleeding 28-year-old patient, who told the staff that two men had surgically removed his testicles as he lay on a wooden table in their remote cabin in the woods. One of the men said he was a “cannibal” who kept body parts in a refrigerator. The unnamed “patient” met the “surgeon”, Bob Lee Allen, on a website advertising castrations. Allen said that he had 15 years’ experience doing similar surgeries and would remove the man’s testicles free of charge. Why so generous? After the two-hour procedure, Allen “laughed and said that he was a cannibal,” the victim told investigators, adding he had a freezer full of body parts.

Oklahoma Cannibal Arrested For Illegal Castration, Body Parts In Freezer
Bob Lee Allen (or possibly Santa Claus?) and Thomas Gates

In Brooklyn NY on April 15, Khaled Ahmad ran up to some cops from the 68th Precinct who were on meal break in a bagel shop about 4:30 a.m., and told them he had killed his 57-year-old father. The victim had been gutted and “the victim’s innards were removed but not found, leading some investigators to believe Ahmad may have eaten them”. Ahmad “had a history of mental illness” while the unfortunate father was a retired grocer, who had just sold his store in Rockaway Beach, Queens. Ahmad had created a GoFundMe page in September 2019 that asked the public to help fund his return to the Palestinian territories, but at the time of the murder, he and his 57-year-old father, Imad Ahmad, were sheltered at home in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn to avoid getting the coronavirus. One high ranking cop said, “it’s the worst crime scene I’ve ever seen.”

Alleged Brooklyn cannibal killer who dismembered dad tried raising money to  return home | amNewYork

On the other side of the country, police were called to a home in Richmond, California, where they found Dwayne Wallick, a “suspected” cannibal, “digging into his grandmother’s dead body and trying to eat her remains”. The murder involved both a knife and an ice pick. “Police believe unspecified drugs may have played a role in the crime”. No shit, Sherlock. A Richmond Police spokesman said the crime scene was among the most gruesome he’s seen in his career.

Dwayne Wallick From Richmond Police
Dwayne Wallick

Here’s the thing – would you pick any of these guys as cannibals? They don’t have a single eye in the middle of their forehead like the cyclops or dog-faces like the cyanocephali. They don’t have bones through their noses like the mythical cannibals of the colonial stories. In fact, since Jack the Ripper, or perhaps Sweeney Todd, cannibals have looked “normal” – indistinguishable from anyone else. Cannibalism has come home, and the cannibal could be living next door. Or even closer.

2020 CANNIBAL MOVIES

Pretty amazing that anyone managed to produce anything in 2020 with all the lockdowns and social distancing, yet below we have a bunch of cannibal movie releases. Several others were put on the backburner and will hopefully appear in 2021 when things get back to abnormal.

Gretel & Hansel (Oz Perkins) – a reboot of the Grimm Brothers tale.

Human Hibachi (Mario Cerrito III) – Indie cannibalism, banned by Amazon.

The Last Thanksgiving (Erick Lorinc) – cannibal pilgrims attack a restaurant that stays open for Thanksgiving.

Cannibal Comedian (Sean Haitz) – you know how comedians like to say “I killed out there”?

Spell (Mark Tonderai) – Hoodoo cannibal rituals.

The Dinner Party (Miles Doleac) – an invitation from the cultural elites – they’d like to have you for dinner.

Butchers (Adrian Langley) – stranded in the backwoods, attacked by cannibals, did anyone mention chainsaws?

Cadaver (Jarand Herdal) – post-apocalyptic family are invited to a show, where they can join the cast, or the menu.

If you’re staying home in 2021, why not browse through my blog, which reviews films and TV shows that feature cannibalism. There is a complete listing of Hannibal Lecter films and TV episodes, and heaps more as well.