The Brilliantly Subversive Sounds of ROB’s ‘Gretel & Hansel’ Score [Terror on the Turntable]
Welcome to Terror on the Turntable! Join Rachel Reeves as she explores the powerful and unholy alliance that exists between horror films and their scores. Covering only scores that have been released on vinyl, it’s a conversation about the intersection of music theory, composer style, film history, and the art of deep listening. So, light the candles, put on your headphones, and get ready to drop that needle. The sacred ritual of listening to music on wax is about to begin. For this installment, Rachel dives into Oz Perkins’ Gretel & Hansel and ROB’s deliciously sumptuous score.
Fairy Tale Beginnings
For many folktales and fairy tales, beauty is only skin deep. Passed down from generation to generation, princesses, magic, and fantastical places were often used to distract from a much darker core hidden deep within. Presented under the guise of mere entertainment, these stories were often used as foreboding cautionary tales. No matter what continent they originated from, no matter what century they first appeared, many still exist today in the cultural consciousness. It’s ultimately the enduring, unrelenting nature of mankind that still allows these ancient stories to resonate.
Due to the enchanting nature of these tales, it’s no wonder that filmmakers continue to mine the familiar fields of fantasy. Giant studio outfits routinely emphasize the more wholesome aspects of such stories. But horror often shines a light on the motivating darkness within. Never afraid to tackle difficult subject matter or address harsh realities, horror boldly shines a light into these oft-forgotten shadows. Over the years many films have tackled the unique foundational terror baked into many a fairy tale’s DNA; Snow White: A Tale of Terror, Freeway, Tale of Tales, The Red Shoes, and The Lure just to name a few. However, few can compare with the haunting beauty and honest sincerity of Oz Perkins’ Gretel & Hansel, his stunning cinematic spin on Hansel and Gretel.
A New Spin On A Well-Known Tale
Based on one of the most disturbing fairy tales of all time, writer Rob Hayes’ script for Gretel & Hansel keeps the dark heart of the original Germanic story eternally in focus. The story was originally published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. It’s thought to have originated in response to a famine that struck Europe in the early 14th century. Inspired by rumors of parents abandoning their children or resorting to cannibalism to survive, the story recounts the tale of two such unfortunate siblings. Cast out by their family, the pair stumbles upon a mysterious witch’s house overflowing with food. Not quite the saving grace it appears to be, the duo soon finds themselves in serious, mortal danger.
For fans of Perkins’ directorial work, the choice to tackle the dark fairy tale came as no surprise. Following up his impressive work with The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, both the subject matter and setting seemed tailor-made for the highly atmospheric and visual director. Not only was he impressed with Hayes’ loyalty to the original source material, but he was also equally impressed by Hayes’ bold subversion of it. By placing Gretel at the forefront over Hansel, the core story remains intact while simultaneously becoming an interesting coming-of-age story told through a feminine lens. Well-known for his strong female lead characters, this small narrative swap sealed the deal. It would soon pave the way for many stylistic choices to come.
Scoring The Subversion
By keeping this trajectory of subtle subversion always in focus, Perkins and his team created something entirely new. Through the cinematography, dark, saturated colors replaced bright, traditional sun-drenched scenes. A thatched roof witch cabin was reimagined by production designer Jeremy Reed as an angular, goth Airbnb dream. Even Alice Krige’s traumatized and nuanced portrayal of the witch stood in stark contrast to the witches of yesteryear. However, nothing upended traditional fairy tale expectations quite like the music from the film’s composer, ROB.
Best known in the film world for his immersive experimental electronic music creations, French rock musician and electropop artist ROB (aka Robin Coudert) was a deliberate and interesting choice for Perkins to make. No stranger to horror and heavy narrative content, ROB’s previous work on films like Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, Maniac (2012), Horns and Amityville: The Awakening continually pushed the boundaries of what terror sounds like. And while most filmmakers tackling a fairy tale project would have shied away from an electronic score in favor of a more traditional, orchestral sound, Perkins leaned into the superficial incongruity.
Creating The Soundscape for Gretel & Hansel
Once officially hired for Gretel & Hansel, Perkins gave ROB only one real note for the direction of the music; keep a sense of humor. Now, while that sentiment feels quite odd upon initial examination, there is a deep level of genius underneath. It would be quite easy to subconsciously fall into conventional sonic traps due to the narrative’s history. But, by keeping a playful, humorous atmosphere constantly in mind, everything becomes fair game. Comfortably and cohesively sitting at the table alongside many of Perkins’ other stylistic choices, this united and visionary approach recontextualizes and breathes fresh new life into an ancient tale.
To really begin to unpack how ROB’s score functions within Gretel & Hansel, let’s take a look at the track ‘Witchcraft.’ As tension builds from beneath with low pulsing tones, a chorus of Moog and mellotron synthesizers, vocals, cellos, and flutes echoes and settles around the characters like a distorted, surreal haze of sound. Slow, deliberate chord progressions unfold while seemingly being pulled apart at the seams. More than imbuing the track with an unsettling aura, it allows the ambiguity of the story to resonate without words. Existing in an undefined world of questionable time and place, the quivering distortions, pitch shifting and leisurely executed grandeur firmly establish the surreality of Gretel and Hansel’s existence. Neither firmly here nor there, this is a world existing somewhere in between fantasy and reality.
Also Read: Oz Perkins Talks The Blackcoat’s Daughter
Further exploring and expounding on this foundational framework comes the track ‘Arise.’ Utilizing alternating layers of synths of various tonalities, harsh, cold sounds stand in direct contrast to warm, choral-like sonorities. As the notably distinct sounds play and feed off each other, the melody progresses in a wonderfully casual and clumsy way. Deliberately shifting and phasing out of step with each other, it is this conscious lack of consistency that supports the measured pace and ambiguous nature of the film itself. There is an inherent elegance to the willingness of letting the music marinate in its ambivalence.
Another interesting way the score supports the narrative comes through ROB’s simple, yet effective choice of melody. While multiple motifs can be heard throughout the film, their presentation and connotation evolve along with the characters. A great example of this idea can be heard in the track ‘Raconteur.’ Casually juxtaposing two previous and distinct melodies within one track, the seamless transition highlights the relative melodic closeness they share. Slowly progressing down the keyboard and back up again with alternating major/minor tonalities, each chord is within spitting distance of each other. Not only does this naturally create a mysterious atmosphere, but it also highlights the thin line between good and evil. More than that, this sultry slippage between chords sonically represents the ease with which Gretel could do the same and the natural duality present within herself.
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By consciously laughing in the face of cinematic fairy tale heritage, ROB creates a new breed of fairy tale score. Trading sweeping strings and elaborately upbeat melodies for raw, lingering synths and luxuriant darkness, Gretel and Hansel’s journey becomes a more honest, modern, and nuanced affair. Further supported by Perkins’ leadership and distinct style, it is incidentally this conscious defiance of precedence that reinvigorates one of the most notorious all-time tales. Only by destroying everything did Perkins and ROB create something truly magical. They once again prove that it’s not what happens that makes a film worth watching, but how it happens.
While best known for their reissues of classic and long out of print film scores, Waxwork Records is equally supportive of new, modern scores as well. Lucky for us, one such example of this is their 2020 LP release of ROB’s Gretel & Hansel score on a beautiful 180 gram, purple marble with red splatter ‘Witchcraft’ vinyl. Complete with stunning original cover art by Sara Deck, it is a release as beautiful as it is engaging to listen to. Despite being sold out through Waxwork directly, copies are still obtainable through sites such as Discogs. If you’re lucky, you may find it at your local record store.