Welcome witches, ghouls, and night freaks, to a special Cine-Ween double feature! The season of frights is almost over, and soon we will move into the slow descent into winter here in the northern hemisphere. It is long, and it is dark, and often I carry with me the spooky vibes from this time as a memory of some of the joy I had before winter came. When I consider October, it is often I think of folk tales and passed down lore of those dangers that lurk in the night. Recently, I have found myself very drawn to stories about witches. The history of witchcraft is of course complicated by thousands of years of Christian persecution, but many have seen the persistence of some form of magic passed along by women as part of a tradition of community resilience and resistance to patriarchy. The stories of witch trials can also be seen as the working out of patriarchy and it’s insecurities on the bodies of women.
Jake and I have decided to each pick a spooky witchcraft related film to discuss together. We each chose a film that was unknown to the other so as to add in an element of surprise, as we discuss and compare these films together. Will we love the other’s choices? Do we think these stories express something meaningful about our anxieties about witchcraft? Do they both chill us to our bones? Let’s find out
GRETEL AND HANSEL
Jacob: The first time I watched GRETEL AND HANSEL (2020), it was on a small laptop screen. As a sucker for aesthetics, two things jumped out to me. First, the glow of the movie. Pale yellows and oranges pop over sylvan greens throughout the film, giving the (appropriate) impression of a lantern-lit fairy tale. Second, the set design. The witch’s cottage and basement were stunning. A mix of a classic, rustic design with an almost-brutalist twist. I jumped at the chance to screen this again for Cine-ween, this time on a much larger screen. Did it hold up? Sort of. While the film delivers aesthetically, and while the characters were well-written and well-acted, I found myself wanting more. More conflict, more action, more peril.
Aside from the captivating aesthetics, I loved the film’s depiction of witchcraft. The actual craft of witchcraft seemed to be a morally neutral combination of natural science and innate talent rather than a more traditional picture of witchcraft as a “pact with the devil.” The evil of the witch in GRETEL AND HANSEL is not her practice of the craft, it’s her insistence on a kind of selfhood that requires the use of other human beings, treating them as consumable objects. Gretel, on the other hand, develops her sense of self and her talents as a witch while respecting the personhood of others, most notably, her brother Hansel.
While it is by no means a perfect film, GRETEL AND HANSEL is a beautiful contribution to witchy cinema.
Liam: I somehow missed this film when it first came out, or rather I missed finishing it. In the age of streaming, and having a very young daughter who often needs my attention, as well as far too many film podcasts I have to do watching and research for, well, sometimes I start a film and never return to it. This is one of those, a film I started and somehow never made my way back to. On this, my first real watch, the film mostly worked for me. You are right Jake, aesthetically this is where it is at. The colors really sell the setting, the set design amplifies the horror and strangeness of the events, and even the special effects are utilized in a way that makes the most of what is available. I found the story to be an interesting retooling of the original tale. I loved Gretel and the Witch, while Hansel, like many child actors, left a good bit to be desired.
What I also found most compelling about this narrative was the attempt to reform the idea of the nature of witchcraft. The way the story begins, one could assume magic or access to magic is, in itself, a corrupting force. Simply having the power available would lead one to all manner of abuses and evil decisions. However, as we delve deeper into the character of the witch, her back story, and then contrast that with Gretel, we see witchcraft as a powerful tool that could corrupt but doesn’t necessitate corruption. This does something dramatically to the film that I am not sure the film handles well though, it shifts the tone and drama of the film. Soon, the movie is less about the mortal danger of a cannibal woman who can utilize illusion to her advantage, and more about the moral struggle within Gretel as to who she will eventually be. However, this being a horror film, the narrative ends in a way that suggested to me, as a viewer, some ambiguity. Gretel succeeds in saving her brother and, hopefully, sending him on his own powerful and iconic journey. Yet, the final sequence actually suggests some uncertainty as to her fate, yes she has made the right decision now, but will this power eventually corrupt her? As a viewer quite honestly I am not sure I care. While I appreciate the performance of Sophia Lillis as Gretel, I am simply not so invested in the character herself that, when the film ends with a shot of her darkening hands and a musical queue which suggests this might portend some menace, it simply didn’t matter much to me. However, I do think it clouds the themes of the film and forces me to wonder if the maker are ambiguous about witchcraft itself or what that might be analogous to in the film.
Jacob: One line from Liam’s response here rings especially true: “Soon, the movie is less about the mortal danger of a cannibal woman who can utilize illusion to her advantage, and more about the moral struggle within Gretel as to who she will eventually be” I think that’s absolutely right, and it will compel some more than others. As with many witch stories, the question of women’s subjectivity in patriarchal society stands as a major theme. Both Gretel and the Witch stand as examples of deviation from the patriarchally prescribed norm. Both Gretel and the Witch find empowerment. The themes of GRETEL AND HANSEL strike me as straightforwardly existential: if it is possible for Gretel to exercise self-determination outside the norms of patriarchy, what shape does that take? Gretel, it seems to me, ultimately ends up recognizing her power and using her power to freely help. She cares for Hansel not because it is her duty or obligation to do so, but because she loves him and recognizes that she has the power to help, and chooses to do so. Where the Witch strikes me as an ultimately patriarchal depiction of the evils of straying from “proper” womanhood, Gretel performs womanhood outside of patriarchal notions of propriety.
Liam: This film is a nightmare trip into a time when the zenophobic and patriarchal traditions that controlled society were weighted with the power of superstition and religion far more than in recent memory. The film explores the history of a one family, first a Mother and her daughter who are ostracized and persecuted because their single nature makes the community assume they are witches, and then the surviving daughter, now and adult, still living with the legacy of judgment from the community. In both cases there is a suggestion that their status as single mothers whose partners in procreation are unknown adds to and amplifies the judgment of the community against them.
This film is not then about witchcraft as either a historical reality or as a metaphor for women’s power in a patriarchal christian context. Instead, this film explores the ways that superstition can be deployed in one of these communities, especially in the middle ages, to brutalize and control women. It also leads to moments of abject horror as our protagonist is not only dealing with abuse from the community but succumbs to hallucinogenic inspired madness. This too is based to some extent in history, as many in Europe suffered from hallucinations from various fungi in bread, though in this case our protagonist goes on a horrifying trip from a mushroom. It is a brutal film, but also slow and meditative, like a drone metal song. The film only breaks it’s hypnotic aura to attack the audience with moments of extreme violence and cruelty.
When I saw this film, shot as a student film project, I was immediately impressed with the ways the film trades in atmosphere and the performances in the film. It is to me an entrancing nightmare of a work, and on this rewatch that struck me again. However, I think on this viewing there might not be enough THERE to justify all this cruelty in the film. It revels in the abuse a tiny bit, and while I still think the scenario itself is interesting, the extent to which it goes to depict the levels of personal tragedy feels a bit excessive now. The director has said “The film tries to depict a very personal and empathetic mental image of a nightmarish and sick mind.” I am not saying it is entirely unsuccessful at that, but I think not enough time is spent on the empathy aspect, because I am not sure depicting her trauma and mistreatment is enough for the audience to connect with her when she breaks and goes over the top. In fact, I don’t think any of the final things she does that are so upsetting need be excised from the film, but I do think if we had more context for why we care about her, then seeing this person we maybe even love descend to these depths would have more of an impact and allow the audience to empathize not just with this one character but with many who become the monsters society has cast them as.
Jacob: There is a lot to like in HAGAZUSSA. It’s beautifully shot, the locations are stunning, and many moments are genuinely effective. On paper, I should love HAGAZUSSA. It’s aesthetic, it’s creepy, and it’s got witches. THE WITCH is one of my favorite films for these reasons. But, for me, HAGAZUSSA doesn’t quite work, mainly because it is slow. Extremely slow. Like molasses. Seriously, it makes TREE OF LIFE look like an action movie. I love Malick’s TREE OF LIFE, and Lynch’s ERASERHEAD is one of my favorite movies. Both are extremely slow. And yet, I have tried watching HAGAZUSSA multiple times and haven’t been able to finish it until now. That’s how slow it is.
For as much time as we’re lingering around with characters, we don’t really get to know them. Here I agree with Liam that the film seems to rely too much on depicting trauma as a substitute for actually getting to know and care about the characters. And since I wasn’t invested in the characters, it felt like there were no stakes. It felt more like a string of meaningless tragedies. The thing is, all that wouldn’t bother me if the movie didn’t have a ton of potential.
Liam: I think I was far less bothered by the pacing than you were, in fact I think it was the slow and moody nature of the film that initially sold me on it. This feels like a drone album to me, a bit monotonous but within that driving monotony there is a certain beauty I like. It is when the film breaks from that slow nature and explodes into scenes of abuse or drug induced hallucination that my feelings on it have turned. Not that anything occurs that I think goes beyond the bounds of taste. I am not offended or even that grossed out by the film. I just felt, on this viewing, that there is not enough time spent investing in this central figure for those acts to have meaning. On that I agree with your assessment, adding in more endearing and human moments with our main protagonist would deepen the stakes of the film.
I don’t think the deliberate and meditative pace precludes those moments, but I think too much time is spent invested in the haunting atmosphere and pending dread. I love those elements of the film, but without any humanizing moments they don’t mean much. At times, this feels more like a well executed music video. Now, if the film fell full force into an avante garde mediation lacking any narrative at all, well that would be more then ok with me. Instead it has, at its core, a tragedy. That is essentially what the film is, the tragic story of woman so victimized by the patriarchal superstitions of her day that she descends into madness. That story is in theory compelling and worth telling. I thought, on first viewing at a film fest some 4 years ago, that this film nailed it. This time though I could see how little we were given to invest in. The wasted potential I also feel, especially when I think there are seeds here for a super compelling idea. The feeling of alienation the audience will inevitably feel towards this woman in her final moments on camera would be much more upsetting if, prior to, we cared about her story.
Interesting, we each picked films we felt gave different perspectives on witchcraft that we wanted the other to be impressed with, and then ended up disappointed in our own choices. I feel that Gretel and Hansel is in many ways a much more successful film than my choice, but I also still find myself thinking more about Hagazussa even if I am pondering the way it fails. This October though, thinking about both these films, I am rethinking the ways I have conceived of witchcraft and the complicated history it represents. Sometimes, witch films where the witches are the villains are just more fun. It is great to see these women wild out and hurt some stupid towns folk. However, both these reimaginings have at least the potential for a different kind of horror, even if they do not ultimately succeed.