Osgood Perkins Interview

It isn’t often you get to tell someone they’ve made the best horror film of the past two decades, but that is exactly how my interview with Osgood Perkins begins. With each passing year, The Blackcoat’s Daughter expands its audience, and it won’t be long before most horror fans accept its status as an iconic film of the 21st Century.

But Perkins is hardly a one-hit wonder. In addition to I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House – an intoxicatingly original (and uniquely American) ghost story – Perkins continues to carve a niche for himself with atmospheric projects like Gretel & Hansel, the latest adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Gretel & Hansel has been made before, of course, but Perkins’s take on the story is the perfect encapsulation of what makes him special as a filmmaker.

By ignoring the temptation to turn the Hansel & Gretel story into a – and I quote – “fucked up adult horror movie,” Perkins may just have made his most revealing project to-date.

Monstrous Empathy

With only two additional director credits to his name, it may seem strange to frame Gretel & Hansel as the “first” film Osgood Perkins has directed that he did not himself write. After all, it’s not like this represents some massive departure from an established career. Then again, nothing about Perkins’s career has been normal. From child actor to indie screenwriter and emerging hyphenate, there’s a sense of discovery to his work that sometimes falls by the wayside with other filmmakers. Perhaps that’s why, when held against The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, Gretel & Hansel feels less like an artist doubling down on his own mythos and more like someone searching for their voice.

So when asked about the transition from writer-director to director, Perkins is candid. “I ended up kind of developing this to become my own,” Perkins admits. “I couldn’t keep my hands off of it.” While Rob Hayes’s original script for Gretel & Hansel provided the general framework for what the film would become, there were areas where Perkins could tinker. This meant creating something more memorable out of Holda, the cannibal witch of fairy tale lore. “The component that was really missing was who is this person, and why does she do what she’s doing?” Perkins explains, noting that “drug addiction, grief management, and self-destructive tendency” became the contemporary framing devices for Alice Krige’s performance. “You give that kind of tip to someone like Alice Krige, and she knows how to run.”

Held up against his previous projects, it’s hard not to see a lot of Perkins’s influence on the character of Holda. Holda feels less like a one-dimensional villain and more like another of his tragic onscreen creations. There is evil in Holda, sure, but this is an evil that has seeped in, not spilled out. Compare her to Joan – Emma Roberts’s character in The Blackcoat’s Daughter – and you see two women who are all-too-aware of the monsters that they’ve become. They may even rationalize their violence as a perverse kind of empowerment. But in the end, both characters are confronted with the emptiness of their decisions. Joan’s murders do not lure the demon back into her life; Holda is defeated by a woman whose own supernatural powers are born of family, the same family she sacrificed along the way.

This is one of Perkins’s unique gifts as a filmmaker: he has an innate ability to find tragedy in even the most monstrous of creations. “For me, it goes back to Darth Vader saying, ‘I am your father,’” Perkins recalls, noting that he will probably never have a theater experience as impactful as the one he had watching The Empire Strikes Back as a child. “It was so deeply impressive, this feeling [that] these monsters are people. And these monsters are monsters because they’re in pain. They’re not monsters because they think it’s fun. No one’s having fun.” Ghosts, witches, and possessed young women form the foundation of horror, but Perkins has us leave these films unable to shake the sense that they were the ones who were indeed wronged.

Adding to this is the strong sense of isolation of each character. From Joanne to Polly to Holda, the “monsters” of Perkins’s films have been drawn away from those who might save them – or at least set them on a better path. Modern Hollywood is littered with independent filmmakers who use horror as an allegory for grief. Still, the isolation that affects Perkins’s monsters resonates on a much more primal level. For Perkins, this taps into the feelings of loneliness he’s struggled with his entire life. “Life is a solo mission,” he explains. “We do our best to populate it and give ourselves a better chance, but the truest look at a protagonist, for me, is a lonely person.”

Rewriting History

To find compassion in fairy tale monsters, one must be willing to challenge a few established histories. For Perkins, this requires a very personal approach to storytelling. “The feeling of reclaiming is certainly an important one for me,” he admits. While there’s no need to explicitly rehash the significant tragedies of his life in an interview – the loss of his father, film icon Anthony Perkins, to AIDS in 1992; the death of his mother, Berry Berenson, during the 9/11 attacks – the impact that those losses had on Perkins as an artist has its own way of seeping into the conversation. More than once, the filmmaker speaks to the profound impact the loss of his parents had on him as both a creative and as a person.

“My life has kind of been in acts,” he explains. “There was the early part of my life that was so consumed by my parent’s existence and what they brought to the world and who they were and the people who came with them and the art that was around them.” Without them, Perkins was forced to reevaluate the direction of his future as well as the meaning of his past. “Where I am now is the manifesting of experience. Now I get to paint the portrait of what it’s been like for me.” If that means that Perkins is working through some issues onscreen for the entire world to see, well, so be it. “It spun me out for a long time and only recently through movie making and through my career and through my relationships have I been able to come into my own. So I guess that’s what we’re watching.”

This form of introspection – or perhaps self-doubt – has also found its way into Perkins’s projects. Holda’s desire to convert Gretel goes beyond the need for a larger coven or even the self-empowerment narrative she carefully spins. To obtain her powers, Holda was forced to make a horrible decision about the people that depend on her. There’s an idea, floating just beneath the surface of every scene, that Holda sees much-needed validation in Gretel. If Gretel chooses the same path as Holda when presented with similar options, then that affirms her own decision. Holda may not be absolved of her sins per se, but she certainly will be made to feel less complicit.

From ghosts to demons, Perkins offers us characters who cannot decide how to let tragedy define them. Polly, the murdered girl of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, whispers her own story to the home’s few regular inhabitants. Joann does everything in her power to recreate the tragic murders of The Blackcoat’s Daughter yesteryear. Holda needs to know if she made the right choice – or if she genuinely had any choice to begin with. This is another way for Perkins to create sympathy for his monsters; there’s nothing sadder than someone trying (and failing) to regain control of their own stories.

The Future

Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that Perkins is involved with a pair of projects that lean into the empathy and historiography of monsters. The first, widely known, is A Head Full of Ghosts, the 2015 Paul Tremblay novel about a young woman who exhibits signs of demonic possession and whose cash-strapped parents agree to let a television crew capture her exorcism. The book’s various twists and turns – and the thunderclap of an ending – make it the perfect Perkins project, with a central sympathetic monster and a character literally setting the historical record straight.

The other is a project Perkins can only hint at. This one draws on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the originator of the sympathetic monster. “it’s like Vertigo and Frankenstein and The Social Network. It’s like those three things put together. It takes place in present-day San Francisco,” Perkins explains. “I like to start with, ‘It’s the feeling of…,’ and go from there, so this is the feeling of Vertigo.” Credit where credit is due: there may not be a more Perkinsian project than some mixture of Frankenstein and Vertigo,

And while Perkins is grateful that The Blackcoat Daughter’s cultural impact continues to grow over time, it is a double-edged sword. “It gives me hope for the future,” Perkins says. “That I’m capable. Like I got a lot in me. At the same time, it’s also sort of like, oh fuck, did I do the best thing first, and is it over now?” If Gretel & Hansel is any indication, Perkins has a lot more monsters to let out of the box. 

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