How 'Gretel & Hansel' puts an empowering feminist spin on the Grimm fairy tale (exclusive clip)

Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·5 min read

It’s no accident that the new horror movie, Gretel & Hansel, reverses the title of the Brothers Grimm-popularized fairy tale about two abandoned children and the witch that’s all too eager to eat them. “It leans more into Gretel’s story,” co-writer-director Osgood Perkins tells Yahoo Entertainment about his version, which opens in theaters on Jan. 31. “One of the first things I pitched to the studio was that Gretel was going to be older; it was the most valid version of the narrative for today’s audiences.”

That simple change transforms the terrifying bedtime story into an empowering coming of age tale… albeit one that’s still all kinds of terrifying. For proof, take a look at this exclusive scene from Gretel & Hansel, in which Gretel (played by Sophia Lillis, breakout star of It and It: Chapter Two) awakens in the dead of night to discover she and Hansel (Sam Leakey) aren’t alone in the witch’s house. Tiny creatures are stirring in the dark and they make it clear that they don’t want to be seen. (Watch the clip above.)

Sophia Lillis and Alice Krige play Gretel and the Witch in the reimagined version of the Grimm fairy tale, 'Gretel & Hansel' (Photo: Patrick Redmond / Orion Pictures)
Sophia Lillis and Alice Krige play Gretel and the Witch in the reimagined version of the Grimm fairy tale, 'Gretel & Hansel' (Photo: Patrick Redmond / Orion Pictures)

At this point in the film, Gretel has yet to discover that their seemingly benevolent guardian (Alice Krige of Sleepwalkers and Borg Queen fame) has a culinary interest in her two wards. But she’s well-aware that all is not what it seems in this remote cabin in the woods. Not that she and her brother have anywhere else to go: cruelly cast out into the world by their grieving mother, Gretel leads Hansel through the dark and deep woods in search of refuge. That kind of abandonment is every child’s nightmare, but Perkins hopes parents take their (age appropriate) kids to the movie anyway, especially since he deliberately crafted it to receive a PG-13 rating. “I wanted this to be something that kids felt was just slightly out of their reach. That’s the charm the original Grimm fairy tales had, too. Kids were drawn to them, even as they felt like they were almost too scary.”

Enter Holda, the elderly witch who welcomes the lost kids into her semi-sinister cottage, which is far removed from the candy-covered abode of legend. “Early on, I said ‘It better not be a candy house!’” Perkins says, laughing. “It’s a cottage with a brutalist vibe. I wanted it to lean heavily on the elemental quality of the fairy tale, but also make everything belong to this movie.”

As Perkins’s telling unfolds, Holda becomes the replacement for the maternal figure that abandoned Gretel and her brother. And those maternal leanings manifest themselves quite differently with both of her surrogate children. She’s protective of Hansel, but displays little interest in him besides as a food source. In contrast, the witch makes a point of educating Gretel in the ways of the world. “What’s compelling to me is the devouring mother dynamic,” explains Perkins, whose parents were actress Berry Berenson and horror movie icon, Anthony Perkins. (The Psycho star died of AIDS-related causes in 1992; Berenson died in the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.) “The idea of a mother who is equally creative and destructive. That’s something that Alice and I really wanted to make sure existed at all times: the witch really loves and respects Gretel as much as she wants to destroy her.”

Sophia Lillis plays the title character in the new horror movie 'Gretel & Hansel' (Photo: Patrick Redmond/Orion Pictures)
Sophia Lillis plays the title character in the new horror movie 'Gretel & Hansel' (Photo: Patrick Redmond/Orion Pictures)

The main lesson that Holda seeks to teach Gretel is that she alone has the power to shape her future, not any authority figure or, for that matter, her younger brother. In one scene, the witch warns her that as Hansel grows older, he’ll first come to fear his sister and then hate her — a pointed reference to the way toxic masculinity can take root in young minds. “I tried to create a world in which Gretel’s power was assumed to be nothing,” Perkins says. “The reality she grows up in is that young women are disposable and should expect the least everything. But when she arrives at the witch’s house, she learns that’s upside down: Holda is the most powerful creature by far, and she doesn’t have time for the patriarchy. It doesn’t factor into how she lives, and that’s what she’s trying to impart to Gretel. ”

And Perkins does see a future for Gretel beyond this movie. “I think it would be cool to let her find her way into other mythologies,” he pitches. “To side-stop out of Grimm Fairy Tales and into Greek mythology. I know that sounds like an odd thing, but I’d love to find some way to make all of these original stories mesh and she could travel to Hades for instance.” There are characters in Gretel & Hansel that tease a wider world: Charles Babalola plays a Huntsman that’s deliberately intended to echo both “Snow White” and “Red Riding Hood.” Perkins reveals that he filmed additional fairy tale-inspired characters that didn’t make the final cut. “The witch had a lover who was this sort of demoness and was related to the Huntsman. The idea was the create a world where there are big bad wolves and other enchanted people. Not to correlate it to Shrek, but I like worlds like that!”

Gretel & Hansel opens in theaters on Jan. 31.

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