★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Osgood Perkin’s horror take on the children’s fairy tale is a brooding and moody spin on the most familiar of stories. It has some gorgeous art direction, and a winning performance by Alice Krige, but the plodding script tries to mask the intent of the story. It tries very hard to provide new wrinkles to the old fable, but ends up feeling over-long even at a fairly short run time of 82 minutes.
How do you make a surprising story out of a tale that everybody knows? Osgood Perkins, following up on his similarly dour The Blackcoat’s Daughter got the keys to the big studio car for this outing. Not surprisingly, he took a VERY serious approach to the fairy tale, unlike the nonsensical and action-packed Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. For that, you can be thankful, as this movie is certainly superior to the attempt at making Hansel and Gretel into superheroes. (You can thank Snow White and the Huntsman for that lunacy.)
In Gretel and Hansel, Oz Perkins (the son of Psycho star Anthony Perkins) got two talented actresses, Sofia Lillis (It) to play Gretel and Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact, Sleepwalkers) to play the elderly Enchantress. Krige plays the sallow witch just right, with plenty of menace, but just enough of a hint of kindness to make you wonder if Perkins was REALLY going to push the subject material beyond its traditional boundaries. Lillis, unfortunately, played a mirthless version of Gretel, and given how much verve and spunk she gave to her character, Beverly in It, the results were a little unfortunate. Also, she struggled at times to present a clearly identifiable accent, it would wander from an American to English, and something indistinct at times.
The title of the movie is a deliberately functional change, as Gretel is the central figure in Perkin’s telling. Their father is dead, and their mother is driven insane with grief, willing to prostitute her children off in order to make ends meet. Gretel takes Hansel and flees their home, striking blindly through the woods to try and find somebody… anybody to provide them shelter. This aspect of the story really helps to build up the conditions for which the hungry children would succumb to their base needs. It doesn’t help that both of them are food motivated.
Newcomer Samuel Leaky, who plays Hansel, does a good job as the needy and immature younger brother. He is no hero, but he wants to be useful. The strange old woman in the woods alternates between caressing him (sizing him up), coaching him, and then alienating him. The character’s motives do take some strange turns in this movie. The turnabouts in who trusts who, are explained through the plot, but these changes of mind come suddenly and not entirely convincingly.
They nest the main story into one involving a pretty young girl with dark and mysterious powers, banished into the woods. It is a folk tale told to all the children in the area and is the stuff of legend. This story, which points to the backstory of the witch becomes a hinge point of the story, but because of dreams, flashbacks, and revisions of the tale, the power of this backstory becomes confusing and muddled.
With a story that is universally known, Perkins, I believe, was trying to allow for some narrative flexibility in his version of the tale. Unfortunately, fairy tales tend to be extremely straightforward morality tales, and by injecting ambiguity into the plot just felt like unnecessary padding that got in the way of what you wanted to see.
A question may come up as to whether this is really a horror movie. To that, the answer is yes. It’s a gateway film that capitalizes on the universal understanding of the core story, and taps into the traumatic elements that have always belonged to Hansel and Gretel. Those tropes of desparation, gluttony, and deceit. By the close of the third act, there is enough viscera and implied cannibalism that will put you on edge. There aren’t a lot of effects in the movie, but once you understand how the feast for the table that mysteriously arrives fresh every day gets made, it will make you queasy.
This is a much more ambitious movie than I expected it to be. It takes risks. It’s a very good looking movie. But it gets in the way of itself far too often. I would have liked some joy from the children at times. But perhaps the idea that fairy tales are indeed grim cautionary stories was the guiding direction here. I would tend to think that more affection between the brother and sister would have strengthened the plot. I applaud the effort to make a contemporary spin on this timeless tale, but in order to make it feel fresh, it tied itself into confusing knots.
Gretel and Hansel is Rated PG-13 and is available for free streaming with an Amazon Prime account. Though this could be positioned as a gateway film, it is clearly a much more serious film than would be appropriate for young children. It is creepy enough to scare children under ten into nightmares, I’m sure.