Beware of old women with treats.
Granted, in the grim land that 16-year-old Gretel and little brother Hansel are growing up in, “old women” and “treats” seem, at first, like relatively benign concerns. Oh, it might’ve been a nice place at one point. But lately, the region’s most popular pastime has been to, well, pass on—horrifically, most often. Going insane is a close No. 2. And if you’re not killed off by your crazy relatives, there are always the monsters to worry about.
Why, ever since their own mother kicked them out of the house (slamming a hatchet into the dining room table for emphasis), they’ve been on the run from all manner of horrors. One night Gretel and Hansel accidentally bunk with a zombie. Another they spent out in the woods, shadowed by things wearing very strange hats. And they’re constantly harassed by the worst monster of all: hunger. When their mother told the two to take a shovel out into the woods and dig their own graves, maybe she wasn’t being peevish, just realistic.
With most everything in this land seemingly out to kill you, you’d think that Gretel and Hansel would’ve given the creepy, dimly lit cottage a wide berth. But when they peeked inside and saw all that food, it was pretty much game over—at least for hungry Hansel. The home’s owner clearly liked children, too—or, perhaps, skilled and playful pigs. Why else would the slide out front smell like bacon?
Indeed, the lady of the house seems thrilled to see her new visitors, complaining not a whit that Hansel broke in and started helping himself to all her sumptuous victuals. Why, she loves children. Can’t get enough of them. Indeed, she would like nothing more than to have them for dinner.
Er, have them over for dinner, of course.
In fact, she suggests, why don’t they stay a while? Eat a little food. Put some meat on those bones. Why, Hansel is just the most scrumptious little boy.
And Gretel … well, the old woman can tell that Gretel is special. Indeed, she sees something of herself in the girl. A special magic, you might say, that, like a fire, just needs a little time, a little air, a little fuel.
The old lady’s house isn’t made of gingerbread. The food at her table never seems to spoil. But Gretel knows—at least at first—that something’s rotten in this house.
For much of the movie, Gretel’s a pretty good big sister under the most trying of conditions. When Hansel and Gretel’s mom forces them to leave, Gretel, though she’s only 16, becomes a surrogate mother of sorts, and a pretty decent one. And even if her brother can be a pain, and even though she does complain at times that she has to “share everything with him,” Gretel doesn’t want her brother to get, y’know, eaten.
If you’ve not heard the old fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel spoiler warning: The old lady is a real witch. What kind of witch? Even the movie doesn’t know exactly. The story seems to want its gingerbread cake and eat it, too.
Oh, the witch is bad, that’s for sure. But the film suggests that her powers—like the powers that are beginning to stir inside Gretel—are naturalistic: They simply are, and you can either ignore them or let them flourish.
Still, we do see an upside-down pentagram carved in a tree near the witch’s house. And the witchcraft we see practiced here seems far, far more malignant than anything in, say, a J.K. Rowling novel. The magic that the old woman possesses seems, stylistically, to be a blend of pagan, occult and fairy-tale motifs.
Moreover, an old legend suggests that these abilities, called sometimes a “second sight,” were given to some. Inconsistent? Yes. But the tale suggests that a man took his sick, beautiful baby up to a mysterious, magical practitioner for healing, and that’s exactly what the darkly clad enchantress gave the man and child. But in place of the disease, the magician gave the baby these powers—powers that were either evil in themselves or, at least, turned the child evil. Powers of “darkness,” the movie calls them, even if it seems unable to commit to saying whether the magic we see is inherently malignant (possibly because it seems to be angling for a sequel).
Christianity is alluded to, but not very positively. Gretel gripes that the local cleric takes most of the area’s food as she talks with an old man in a room festooned with stained glass.
Gretel says that her father has “gone ahead to his reward.” When the siblings first glimpse the old lady’s food spread, one says that it’s “heaven.” The old woman refers to the Creator as a “she.” We see and hear stories about “ghosts.” Trees and other forms of wood obey magical directives, and someone seems to materialize from a pool of bloodlike black liquid.
[Spoiler Warning] Gretel’s emerging magical powers blossom fully by the end of the story. She seems determined to use them in benign and beautiful ways, rejecting the evil trajectory of the witch who entrapped and mentored her in her skills. But when her fingers turn black near the end, it’s hard not to see it as a suggestion that Gretel’s good intentions may yet be corrupted by the dark magic within her. Still, Gretel’s use of magic seems to free the souls of children whom the previous witch has both eaten and whose souls she’s apparently kept bound to her as well.
When an old man interviews Gretel early on, it’s ostensibly for a housekeeping position. But he asks pointedly and repeatedly whether she’s a virgin or not, and there’s a subtly creepy reference to how she should deal with the man’s “guests.” Gretel’s mother is furious that Gretel didn’t make more of an effort to get the job. “He didn’t need a housekeeper,” Gretel tells her mom, her insinuation clear if not clearly spelled out.
Gretel and Hansel meet with a kindly huntsman who points them in the direction of others of his ilk. They’re good men, he says. But he also suggests that Gretel is vulnerable to being seduced or misused by, presumably, less scrupulous men she might encounter.
The man cautions Gretel of “wolves” along the way, too—a reference, it would seem, to the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale and (what some say are) its underlying sexual themes.
Gretel has her period at the old woman’s house (we see her looking underneath her bed sheets), and she goes to the river to wash the menstrual blood out of her clothes. A vision she has also seems to subtly echo menstruation.
Gretel takes a bath, but all we see are her knees and a bit of legs.
Cannibalism is an inescapable part of the original Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, and the film certainly leans into that aspect of the story.
A witch dumps a load of organs and entrails—indistinguishable en masse, but still slimy and bloody—onto a table, then adds a fat, bloated arm to the mix. (We see other such appendages in a basket.)
The witch pulls a long lock of blond hair from her mouth, decorated by a tiny bow at the end. Gretel discovers that the food they’ve been eating all this time was made, magically, of dead children.
We see several kids walk, in a trance, to their doom: Two are led into a large stone building, and as we’re told what happened to them, we see telltale red smoke billow from the chimney. Shadowy figures talk about sharpening saws that’ll cut through bone.
Someone is set on fire and immolated—eventually falling into pieces and onto a magical barbecue. A zombie-like thing is shot in the head with an arrow, apparently “killing” him. (The wound is bloodless, but obvious.) In flashback, a man begins to stick a white-hot poker into his mouth—a form of magically-induced suicide, it’s suggested. We see a horse, from a distance, collapse grotesquely even as we hear its bones breaking.
Gretel has loads of macabre visions featuring dead little children, black-bleeding corpses lying underneath sheets, and a girl whose head falls off.
Gretel blurts out the word “h–,” which Hansel repeats (chastising her for swearing).
A very hungry Gretel and Hansel eat some mysterious mushrooms in the woods and get quite high. The old woman and Gretel both concoct and drink a potion or two.
Gretel vomits in a receptacle. The old woman digs a huge hole in the woods for some reason, and she seems to retch into it as well—which somehow facilitates a physical transformation in her.
Hansel relieves himself on trees a couple of times. A huntsman suggests that the very dirty little boy could be mistaken for “compost.”
Gretel is not always the kindest of big sisters. And the witch plays on Gretel’s sisterly struggles by suggesting that she needn’t be weighed down by her sense of responsibility to her tag-along little brother.
Director Oz Perkins (son of Psycho star Anthony Perkins) has carved out a niche for himself, crafting a handful of visually striking (if narratively dubious) horror flicks. Gretel & Hansel follows close to form. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he said that he wanted to turn this fairy tale into more of a coming-of-age story.
“I wanted Gretel to be somewhat older than Hansel, so it didn’t feel like two 12-year-olds—rather a 16-year-old and an 8-year-old,” Perkins said. “There was more of a feeling like Gretel having to take Hansel around everywhere she goes, and how that can impede one’s own evolution, how our attachments and the things that we love can sometimes get in the way of our growth.”
Indeed, the witch in the movie tries to encourage Gretel’s “evolution,” telling her to shed the things that “want you as you were, rather than who you were meant to be.”
That’s a message very much of the age—and a very destructive one, as well.
Today, secular culture tends to think of individuals as flowers: We’re meant to bloom and be beautiful and radiant—whatever “beautiful” and “radiant” means to us. And as such, we have not just the right, culture further suggests, but the moral obligation to push against anything that might keep us from blooming as fully as we possibly can. So while the movie doesn’t support anyone eating Hansel, it does sympathize with the desire to get rid of him. After all, Gretel can’t bloom with the little boy (who thwacks away at trees with his insensitive hatchet) blocking all of the film’s paganesque, female-centric sun.
But here’s the thing that we often forget: In nature, flowers are merely the intro for a plant’s main purpose, the preamble to fruit, to the grain, to the seeds we need to keep on living. Flowers take, by design. But plants give. They feed animals, the ground and people, too—and in their act of giving, they perpetuate life.
The Christian faith is predicated on sacrificial giving. The faith’s Founder demonstrated the ultimate act of sacrifice at Calvary, and myriad Bible verses exhort us to do the same. Yes, I think God wants us to grow in our own gifts. He wants us to realize the potential He gave us. But that growth has a greater purpose: to be better able to give to others.
I think even the film itself is uncomfortable with its own message. After all, the main spokesperson for self-actualization also likes to eat little kids. Not a character to be trusted, methinks. And Gretel is far more winsome and likable when she’s in the role of the giving older sister (even though we understand how hard it is) than when she’s exploring how to, as Perkins says, “evolve.” Gretel’s evolution leads, inherently, to a discomforting and ambiguous ending. It’s as if the movie, while trying to convey one point, can’t completely avoid the more profound truth below the surface.
And that leaves us with a messy movie indeed—one with ambitions that go unrealized. Filled with creepy occultism, Gretel & Hansel is made of gingerbread: Alluring to look at, but structurally and morally hollow.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.