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Gretel and Hansel / The Turning (2020)

We’ve got a double feature tonight, folks! Two films, each about a young brother/sister pairing, each one adapted from a well-worn story in the public domain, and each made in a transparent effort at chasing a prominent trend in modern horror cinema.

The story of Gretel and Hansel needs no introduction. Respectively played by Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey, the two kids are forced out of their home by a destitute mother who can no longer afford to keep housing and feeding them. Thus they head out into the forest, they get taken in by a kindly old woman (played by Alice Krige) who turns out to be a witch, shit gets weird, and the rest you know.

The Turning may need a bit more introduction, though the premise is quite simple. “The Turn of the Screw” — the greatly influential novella written by Henry James — tells the story of an unnamed governness (named Kate in the film adaptation, played by Mackenzie Davis) hired to look after two young children (Flora and her big brother Miles, played respectively by Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard). Then our governess starts seeing things that may or may not be actual ghosts, and the kids are very likely in huge trouble. Shit gets freaky and we’re off to the races.

By virtue of its basis in an old-fashioned children’s morality fable, Gretel and Hansel comes with some obvious themes right off the jump. This has always been a story about how looks can be deceiving, how nothing ever comes for free, beware of anything too good to be true — especially coming from strangers — and so on. Yet there are a lot of questions on the flip side: How to know when something that appears dangerous might actually be safe, when to refuse help even when fatally desperate for it, when caution veers into paranoia, and so on. And of course, there’s the distinct possibility that anyone of means might seek to help an attractive teenage girl (or even a naive young boy) for more sexually perverted reasons. All of these concepts are explored in the film, and they all mesh beautifully with the source material.

By contrast, The Turning and its source material have themes that are much more subtle. There’s a fair bit in here about finding a family — the movie goes even further with this, as Kate’s father ran off when she was very young and her mother (played by Joely Richardson) went insane years ago. What’s more prominent, the book and the movie are both heavily preoccupied with “corruption of the innocent”, and the perpetual question of how the children might have been affected and are still being affected by the deceased groundskeeper (Quint, played by Niall Greig Fulton) and their late former nanny (Ms. Jessell, played by Denna Thomsen). To say nothing of how Kate may possibly be damaging her charges, or maybe even the other way around.

With the book as with the movie, the primary focus is in the governess’ slow descent into madness. Obviously, Mackenzie Davis’ performance is a strong point here, and it’s fascinating to watch her grip on sanity grow steadily more threadbare. The filmmakers even threw in a new genetic wrinkle, with the suggestion that Kate may be going crazy as her mother did. Yet the filmmakers are good enough to preserve the open-ended nature of the source material, leaving Kate an unreliable narrator incapable of confirming or denying for a certainty that any malicious spirits are actually real.

This brings me to an intriguing bit of connective tissue between our two movies: Both Kate and Gretel suffer greatly from insomnia, suddenly waking up from any number of horrific dreams that may or may not be real. Though the device is admittedly cheap, it does the job of forcing everyone to question what’s real, what’s the product of an overactive and paranoid imagination, and whether the distinction really matters. That said, Gretel does a much better job of maintaining some illusion of a coherent baseline. They don’t go into dreams-within-dreams like Turning does. Nor does Gretel blow everything up in the last five minutes and end with a stiff middle finger toward the audience.

From start to finish, The Turning suffers because it was clearly made in imitation of Blumhouse horror films (The Conjuring and its sequels/spinoffs, the Insidious series, and so on). Thus we have a great many obnoxious jump scares set to overblown music stings, set in rooms that are totally dark for no reason. It follows that the filmmakers try to maintain the nuanced psychological horror of the book while aping an aggressive horror style worn down by oversaturation. Moreover, the filmmakers are taking a story in which the paranormal threat may or may not even be real, and they’re adapting it into a style built for films in which the paranormal threat is undeniably real. It doesn’t work.

By contrast, Gretel and Hansel was very clearly made in imitation of the “prestige horror” trend, spearheaded by such filmmakers as Ari Aster and Robert Eggers. As a reminder, we’re talking about a dark and foreboding, old-fashioned, “Brothers Grimm” fairy tale here. What’s more, it’s a story in which our two characters are defenseless young children wandering through a terrifying and dangerous forest. Plus, it’s a story that involves at least one villainous witch; and the Wiccan, sacred feminine, nature-worshipping brand of witchcraft is certainly having a moment right now (see also: The Love Witch, “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, Color Out of Space, Midsommar, etc.).

Given all of these influences, it makes a lot of sense that the filmmakers would use movies like The Witch and Hereditary as touchstones. Yes, this does come with some unfortunate drawbacks, like a couple of egregious shaky-cam shots and a metric ton of useless voice-over narration. And yes, the presentation isn’t quite desolate or immersive enough to pass for anything more than an imitation of the real thing. Still, it’s good enough to impart a creepy sense of foreboding, with the added bonus that the filmmakers don’t resort to any jump scares.

And what of the characters? Well, there’s a reason why Gretel gets top billing here. She gets the lion’s share of development and does pretty much everything worth doing in the plot. Compare that to Hansel, whose ceaseless appetite and constant desire to prove his own masculinity render him in perpetual need of rescuing.

Meanwhile, Flora and Miles are caught up in the collateral damage between the competing influences of Henry James and Jason Blum. In the book, both children are so perfectly sweet and innocent that audience and governess alike have to wonder how anything could possibly be wrong with them. In Blumhouse horror, a kid can either be a screaming would-be victim or a creepy demon child, without much of anything in between. So the filmmakers try to have it both ways and the results are all over the place.

Flora seems to be a decent kid, but she’s nowhere near the flawless cherub of the book. Though she has a crippling phobia of leaving the grounds, for reasons that are never explained. (No, to the best of my memory, that wasn’t in the book.)

As for Miles, the source material was extremely cryptic about whether he had ever been subjected to any kind of trauma. In the film, there is no doubt. This is very clearly a broken kid, and his scars manifest in ways that cause all manner of friction with Kate. On the one hand, I appreciate that this brings some dramatic conflict to the story, and yet another stress fraying on Kate’s sanity. On the other hand, it doesn’t make for a more interesting character, nor does it faithfully adapt the suspense or horror of the book.

Elsewhere, Mrs. Grose (here played by Barbara Marten) deserves some mention. In the book, she consistently turned a blind eye toward anything strange or harmful (assuming any of it actually happened, of course), all while serving as a stalwart emotional support for the governess. The film resolves this contradiction by setting the film in the 1990s, when the “emotional support” role can be played over the phone by Kate’s best friend (Rose, played by Kim Adis). Thus Mrs. Grose can be played in a more straightforward manner, as the imposing family caretaker who obviously knows more than she’s letting on. And again, because there’s nobody on the grounds that Kate can trust or confide in, she goes crazy that much faster.

Which brings us back to Gretel‘s witch. Obviously, Alice Krige is well within her comfort zone here, and my hat’s off to the makeup artist who made the character look just unsettling enough. Of course there isn’t much more I can say without getting into spoilers, but suffice to say that this character sets the tone for the movie as a whole. She sets the pace for the plot, she determines how and when the movie introduces real witchcraft, and she does it all with aplomb.

And seriously, when’s the last time you saw a witch onscreen who was legitimately scary?

Both The Turning (2020) and Gretel and Hansel are visibly padded, with source materials too scant to support even the minimal 90-minute feature length runtime. Still, Gretel and Hansel makes better use of its time, with far greater commitment to crafting a faithfully adapted tale told in a creepy and unsettling way that’s scary without too much gore, and messing with reality without becoming completely incoherent. By contrast, while The Turning clearly shows that someone behind the scenes really loved and understood the source material, trying to force it into the mainstream horror mold defined by Blumhouse sends the film tearing itself in half, collapsing into a bland and formless mess.

Yes, Gretel and Hansel is still a pale imitation of so many other, better films in the style (The Witch and Midsommar come immediately to mind), but it’s still good enough that I can recommend giving it a look. The Turning isn’t even worth that much, alas.

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