Osgood Perkins‘ latest feature, the chilling and stylish Gretel & Hansel, is the third horror film he has directed in the past five years. With his three atmospheric, eerie features, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016), and now Gretel, he has established himself as a director with clear, coherent artistic visions that work best within the (ever-shifting) parameters of horror.
Horror has historically been a cinematic genre where authorship shines, whether the artistic decisions are made by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Karyn Kusama, James Wan, or Guillermo del Toro, or, if we expand the notion of “author,” actors (Jamie Lee Curtis, Vincent Price), studios (Universal, Blumhouse), or production designers (Carol Spier, Grace Yun). Horror is a well-defined genre, with a breadth of visual, sonic, narrative, and thematic conventions that filmmakers take pleasure in experimenting with, remixing, and defying. The best horror auteurs transform generic or forgettable material into surprising, artful experiences, such as Hitchcock with his suspenseful spiral narratives or Kusama with her darkly funny and bloodthirsty heroines.
Osgood Perkins is particularly compelling, as he is the son of horror legend Anthony Perkins, best known for his delightfully skewed performance as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). This familial legacy inevitably inflects Perkins’s own work, in which he demonstrates a natural affinity for chilling horror aesthetics and suspenseful pacing. Perkins’s father is explicitly woven into Pretty Thing, with his dreamy version of “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song” playing over and over again on Lily’s (Ruth Wilson) haunted cassette player. Later on in the film, Lily and Iris (Paula Prentiss) lie in bed and watch Friendly Persuasion (1956), a Civil War drama starring none other than Anthony Perkins.
Perkins’s distinguishing feature is that he makes slow, contemplative films that rely less on jump scares and more on odd, abstract imagery and eerie, dream-like atmospheres. His narratives do not follow the familiar beats of horror movies wherein equilibrium is disrupted by the arrival of a monster or a killer who slowly takes down supporting cast members before being defeated by the protagonist (usually the “final girl“). Rather, Perkins opts for meandering narratives filled with quiet characters who struggle against supernatural forces they do not quite understand.
His first feature, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), is creeping and unpredictable, and slowly unravels its serene exterior to reveal unthinkable horrors. Kiernan Shipka gives a bone-chilling performance as Kat, an awkward freshman at the secluded Bramford Academy who is overtaken by demonic spirits and compelled to commit increasingly gruesome acts of violence.
Perkins shies away from straightforward exposition, offering visual cues and quiet, brief moments of dialogue to indicate what is happening to these characters. A dream sequence and Kat’s murmured proclamations strongly suggest that her parents are dead, although it is never revealed if this is true. Eerie flashbacks and a brief look of a photograph are enough to figure out that Joan (Emma Roberts) is a slightly older version of Kat, and that the people she has hitched a ride with are her former schoolmate (and murder victim) Rose’s (Lucy Boynton) parents. The film is delicately edited, with the two time periods intersecting in troubling ways, and acts of violence depicted from multiple perspectives.
Perkins’s films defy simple explanations, which is one of the reasons he is such a compelling auteur. He offers scattered puzzle pieces and trusts the audience to put them together, suggesting that there are many different ways to interpret his films. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is an impressive first feature, subtly attuned to the artfulness of horror. His second film, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, is similarly languorous and meditative, a Gothic ghost story that critic April Wolfe describes as “the most atmospherically faithful adaptation of a [Shirley] Jackson book that never existed.”
I Am the Pretty Thing opens with a voice-over, with live-in nurse Lily (Wilson) proclaiming that she is 28, and will never make it to 29. She arrives at retired author Iris Blum’s (Paula Prentiss) spooky Massachusetts home to take care of the ailing writer in her old age. Perkins continues his pattern of leaving subtle, but effective, visual cues to indicate supernatural forces, such as the rug at the bottom of the stairs that keeps mysteriously flipping over and the alarming spot of black mold spreading across the wallpaper. The film is bright and beautiful, elegantly shot and genuinely scary despite its lack of jump scares and gory violence.
The film descends into madness as Lily begins to hallucinate while reading The Lady in the Walls, Iris’s novel that turns out to be more fact than fiction. The climactic scares are subtle and psychological, and the imagery of spreading black mold and corpses hidden within the walls reflect Iris’s sentiment that even pretty things eventually start to rot. Perkins, cinematographer Julie Kirkwood, and production designers Shane Boucher and Jeremy Reed achieve the perfect atmosphere: a mix of chilly ghostliness and delicate warmth.
Perkins’s latest feature, Gretel & Hansel, stars Sophia Lillis as 16-year-old Gretel, Sam Leaky as 8-year-old Hansel, and Alice Krige as Holda, the wicked cannibalistic witch. This updated version of the terrifying and grim(m) fairy tale focuses on Gretel’s strength, maturity, and powers of intuition. In signature Perkins style, there are long stretches of the film without dialogue, save for Gretel’s often poetic voice-overs. She speaks of a desire for independence, and of the scary-yet-exhilarating fact that she is becoming a woman.
Perkins loosely follows the narrative of the familiar tale, but the emphasis here is on mysterious and evocative imagery. The children wander through a chilly autumnal forest as ghostly figures float on the margins of every frame. The witch’s cabin in the woods has a sharp, triangular roof and is filled with hidden levels, mirrors, and corridors. Perkins usually leaves gruesome violence to the imagination, so that when he chooses to depict it onscreen it is all the more shocking and terrifying. It is always startling when the violence that has been lurking beneath the surface suddenly boils over and causes a massacre — think of the woman in the walls in Pretty Thing, or Kat’s satanic murders in Blackcoat’s Daughter.
One of these rare instances of explicit gore occurs toward the end of Gretel & Hansel, when a drugged Gretel blearily watches as Holda, looking youthful without her fail old woman disguise, pours young children’s innards onto a wooden table and transforms them into the delicious treats she and her brother have been fattening themselves on. Much like in the original tale, Gretel is smarter than she appears, and utilizes her intuition and intelligence to burn the witch and save her little brother. Interestingly, Perkins highlights the psychic connection between Gretel and Holda, and reveals that they both possess the same magic, offering a unique take on a well-worn story. Perkins tends to leave his endings ambiguous, and this film is no exception. Gretel’s final voiceover finds her contemplating whether to use her powers for good, or for the darkness she knows she is capable of.
Perkins is currently at work on another horror film, an adaptation of Paul G. Tremblay’s novel A Head Full of Ghosts, a chilling story that blurs the lines between mental illness and demonic possession, reality television and religion, and fact and fiction. Perkins has established himself as a director with a well-defined sense of artistry with his perfectly-styled slow-burn arthouse horror films, and is a perfect choice to direct this material. Perkins makes movies for those who favor atmosphere over action and subtlety over excess. While his movies share clearly defined stylistic and generic features, each of them is different enough in terms of tone, subject matter, and production design to keep his oeuvre interesting. Perkins is well on his way to becoming a modern master of horror, one spooky, out-of-focus shadow at a time.