A Bewitching Screening Of GRETEL & HANSEL With Director Osgood Perkins
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Photo courtesy of HLK Fotos
Some fairytales have a way of getting stuck in your head. They’ve been passed down from generation to generation and yield tales of caution, misfortune and adventure. Tuesday night in Austin, Texas, I had the pleasure of attending an advance screening of Gretel & Hansel with director Osgood “Oz” Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House) in attendance that seemed like it was straight out of a fairytale with dangers and delights abound.
The event took place at The American Legion-Charles Johnson House, a historic landmark built in 1858. Supported by towering white columns and an expansive front lawn, this house is one of Austin’s signature haunted locations which made it the perfect setting for a spooky cinematic event. At the property’s gate, fog machines roared as they clouded the walkways producing smoke that crawled up from the ground engulfing guests. Witches dressed in black from head to toe quietly lingered throughout the house and roamed the red-lit grounds. The halls of the house were decorated with large candelabras and the savory smell of meat filled the air, luring us to come inside.
In the dining area, we were treated to a feast for kings (or future victims) courtesy of Texas Honey Ham Company. They served roasted ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, dinner rolls and cookies. Guests were also allowed to pick their poison from a drink list featuring a signature Witch’s Brew (aka sangria), wine, beer, or Rambler sparkling water. After properly nourished, we were led upstairs under flashing lights to the screening room. BMD’s very own Britt Hayes hosted the event and provided the pre-screening introduction alongside director Osgood Perkins, who was very excited about the presence of preteens in the audience, and did not hesitate to use the word “fuck” however many times he pleased. He even asked for a show of hands to see which kids have said the cuss word before and was dumbfounded that a couple never have. He expressed that Gretel & Hansel is fairly kid-friendly despite its roots in horror because the fairytale is at the foreground.
While the adults were reserved during the screening, it was comical to see the kids in front of me squirm at graphic scenes. Some even turned their heads at the sight of witches in the enchanted woods, but then later ignorantly giggled along with Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Sammy Leakey) when the siblings unknowingly trip shrooms. In the Q&A following the film, Perkins talked about how he approached this scene with the young actors since they obviously did not have experience with hallucinogenic fungi. Leakey just stated on that particular day of shooting, all he knew was that “the trees were supposed to be amazing today”. On a deeper thematic level, Perkins disclosed this was one of the first times Gretel is exposed to her powerful connection with nature.
As the title suggests, the film heavily focuses on Gretel coming into her own. Perkins wanted to convey that, as the protagonist, “she has a heightened sense and is operating on a higher register”. For example, she is a vegetarian and he used several close-up shots of her face concentrating on Lillis’ eyes being subtly yet dynamically expressive. He emphasized the film has “a quality of learning, growing and becoming” which is deliberately shown through Gretel’s relationship with the evil witch, Holda (Alice Krige). Perkins is frequently asked about his affinity towards female protagonists and last night he stated how “horror is vital because it is about what we don’t understand or know - it’s about what’s hidden.” He continued that women are similar in this regard. “It’s often difficult to fully understand them, but that’s one of the wonderful things about women. They are partially hidden, keep you thinking, awake, and sometimes scared”. This perspective is also mirrored in the film with Gretel’s voice-over dialogue and private conversations with her brother. Gretel is calmly skeptical of the bountiful offerings from the witch since she knows nothing is given without having something taken in return. Even during a game of chess, Holda tells Gretel that Hansel should be scared of her next move because “the Queen can do whatever she wants”. In another scene, Holda validates Gretel’s introverted thoughts by saying “women often know things they’re not supposed to”. Many viewers will unfortunately resist this feminine approach to the classic fairytale, but it does work.
Several fun facts were disclosed by Perkins. The film was shot in Ireland over the course of five weeks and there are gorgeous shots inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. Although he wanted the fairytale to be at the foreground, he specifically did not want tropes in the film like extras dressed as villagers, buckles on shoes, thatched roofs, or dragons. However, there are a few references to The Wizard of Oz you should keep your eyes peeled for. This is a film meant to feel timeless and “contained to exist within itself”. While libraries were often the primary location for film research in the past, Perkins looked elsewhere for inspiration this time: Pinterest. The idea for Holda’s black-coated fingers was a result of “a photo of a French woman with tattooed fingers that looked like she was straight out of SoHo in the ‘70s”.
Perkins was a delight to listen to and Gretel & Hansel is simply spellbinding. The film is a refreshingly modern take on a classic fairytale with a brooding yet beautiful atmosphere that is signature Osgood Perkins. Audiences can easily get lost in its story and fall victim to its enchantment. This was one hell of a haunting event that conjured up all of the best aspects of the movie-going experience.