I often say seeing movies in the correct environment can largely dictate your potential level of enjoyment. It's important to set yourself up for success in that way. Don't watch Avengers: Endgame on a cellphone with a bad internet connection. Don't watch A Quiet Place in a very loud place. So, whenever I get the chance to watch a movie in a unique environment, I tend to jump on it. Such was the case recently when I had the chance to watch Gretel & Hansel in a spooky, old-timey mansion.
Just ahead of the movie's release, I had the opportunity to check out director Oz Perkins' take on the classic Grimm fairytale at the American Legion Charles Johnson House in Austin, Texas. It's a large mansion that dates back to the pre-Civil War era. That makes it old enough to feel like it could easily have been around when Gretel & Hansel takes place. Though, it's not precisely clear when that is. In any event, it served as a sufficiently creepy and fitting venue for just such a thing.
Upon arrival, we walked up to the large, white house that, on the surface, is the definition of decadence. There were red lights and fog to truly capture the vibe and, upon entering, it's amazing how little needed to be changed to make it feel like we were entering a similar situation as those in the fairytale we're all so familiar with. A couple of young kids are lured into a luxurious home with the promise of treats, only to find something terrifying waiting on the other side. As it just so happens, there was quite a nice spread. Ham, Turkey, mashed potatoes, cookies. And, oh yes, an open bar. Perhaps the adult equivalent of Hansel's obsession with sweets.
The food was quite tasty. It did the trick it was intended to do. Lulled you into a sense of calm. This, despite the fact that everything else was designed to make you feel unsettled. Blood red writing on the bathroom mirrors. Random witches just standing silently in places that people were socializing. A flickering light upstairs that, as I'm told, was not part of the gimmick. Just a broken light that, as a happy accident, added a lot to the ambiance.
As for the screening, it was set up in a large hall upstairs where I imagine people did fancy things in the days of old. Where Southern gentleman said things like, "I do declare." I imagine if movie screenings were a thing back around the time when this mansion would have been considered new, it would have looked a lot like it looked on this particular night. It was a relatively intimate situation, with a small number of people and, perhaps most surprising of all, quite a few children.
Oz Perkins was on hand to introduce the movie and do a post-screening Q&A. One of the things he said ahead of time that stuck with me is that Gretel & Hansel was made for "younger" people. It's a PG-13 horror flick. While it's certainly dark and has some horrific imagery, it's certainly the type of movie I can imagine watching in my youth that would have made me say, "Yes, more of that please." All horror fans have movies like that. So having a bunch of kids in the room certainly added something to the experience.
One peculiar thing I noticed, and one could argue a missed opportunity, was as I was sitting in my seat waiting for the show, I took note of the music playing. It was quite modern. Some R&B. Some pop. Some rock thrown in there. Nothing I recognized specifically, but it certainly didn't suit the otherwise very specifically cultivated vibe. Everything about the environment was neatly tuned to have our experiences mirror that of the main characters in Gretel & Hansel. This stuck out to me in a big way.
What good would an experience like this be if the movie wasn't any good? Luckily, Oz Perkins did a damn fine job adapting this familiar tale of a girl and her younger brother who unwittingly stumble upon the house of an evil witch in the dark woods. It's something we all know and something we're all familiar with. Much like Peter Pan or Robin Hood, it can run the risk of feeling stale, with a been there, done that vibe. Not in this case.
Oz Perkins used the bones of this tale, rather faithfully, to tell a coming-of-age story that can be enjoyed by horror lovers of all ages. Perkins uses some interesting methods to pad out the story in order to make it the length of a feature, but it doesn't overstay its welcome. I'm willing to admit I was a little skeptical going in, but I am pleased to report this serves as an early 2020 surprise for me. Granted, the environment I was in certainly colored my experience, there's no doubt about that.
The production design, specifically, is gorgeous in Gretel & Hansel and fits so perfectly into the environment of this old, prestigious home. Understandably, the slow-burn nature of the movie may not suit everyone's tastes, but it's hard to deny that this movie is hauntingly gorgeous. Also, not for nothing, but Sophia Lillis, who horror fans will recognize from IT and IT Chapter Two, has another excellent turn here and may be cementing herself as something of a modern scream queen. Credit is also due for the young Sammy Leakey, who takes on the role of Hansel. The two young leads are on the screen for 95 percent of the movie and it rests squarely on their shoulders. Their shoulders didn't give out under the pressure.
More than anything, things like this remind me of the importance of shared communal experiences centered around cinema. Understandably, streaming and 4K TVs have made it pretty easy to justify staying at home and watching something on the couch, instead of getting dressed and paying to go see something in a theater. But movies can truly be an experience. They don't need to happen in an eerie mansion. Though, it certainly didn't hurt in this case. Gretel & Hansel is in theaters now from Orion Pictures.