'Gretel & Hansel,' One of 2020's Best Horror Movies, Is Now on VOD

A stylish, chilling retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

gretel and hansel
Orion Pictures

Fairy tales have always been pretty scary — that was the whole point, back when the Brothers Grimm compiled folktales from the oral traditions of rural Germany. Many of the stories have brutal, sad endings, and many, if not all, were intended to teach their target audience — children — a very important lesson: Never go into the wilderness alone. Gretel & Hansel, a modern retelling of "Hansel and Gretel" from director Oz Perkins released in theaters back in January and now available to rent on VOD, reaches back in time to find its source material's terrifying roots.

In the original story, little Gretel and Hansel stumble upon a house made out of cakes and candies while walking in the woods that is owned by a witch who hopes to roast the siblings alive and eat them. The movie slyly inverts the story. Gretel (played by IT's Sophia Lillis) and brother Hansel (Samuel J. Leakey), thrown out of their home by their mother after her daughter refuses to work for a creepy man who'd asked her if she's still a virgin, travel through the woods and are saved by a hunter (Charles Babalola), who tells them there's employment to be found with the woodcutters up the road. But Gretel has learned to be suspicious of adult men who come along just when you need them and leads her brother back through the woods until they find a house full of food.

click to play video
Orion Pictures

The witch who lives inside (Alice Krige) lets Hansel practice chopping trees with an axe while she teaches magic to Gretel, awakens a primordial power within the girl, and tempts her with promises of a life free of men, adults and the bindings of society. But everything given requires something to be taken away, and Gretel soon learns the terrifying origins of the witch's magic, and what she had to give up to possess it. The movie is a refreshingly feminine take on fairy-tale mythology, examining female power while also cautioning against the lengths one might need to go to in order to acquire it.

Gretel & Hansel has a striking look, in keeping with Perkins' usual directorial flair. Many characters wear clothing with exaggerated shapes, have jagged collars, and don pointy little hats, and the sets often have a German expressionist tendency to tilt in odd directions, with nonexistent ceilings and walls that seem to go up and up forever. Galo Olivares (the cinematography collaborator on Netflix's Roma) shot most of the movie in an unexpected, claustrophobic 1:55:1 aspect ratio, while every scene is lit with evocative primary colors, most often a bright, sickly yellow. The movie is a treat to look at, especially the gorier moments, even if you eventually find the plot lacking.

With its antique setting, Gretel & Hansel fits right into the recent "provincial horror" movement, in the vein of other scary movies like The Witch and Apostle, of precarious, outmoded village societal mores crumbling from within. Gretel (you may have noticed her name appears first) is a 21st-century character dropped into an 18th-century world, a lens by which we can look back and reshape the stories of the past to reflect the aspirations of the present.

Need help finding something to watch? Sign up here for our weekly Streamail newsletter to get streaming recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.

Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.