With “Gretel & Hansel,” director Oz Perkins solidifies his uncanny ability to instill dread that stains and spreads. Back after his equally unsettling and slow-burning “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” Perkins recants a familiar Grimm fairy tale with even more sinister incantation. This version swaps the order of the sibling title, leading to one of the better character studies adapted from folklore legend. Hansel (Sam Leakey) may only be a footnote in Gretel’s evolution this time around, but there’s enough foreshadowing to suggest his journey – whether alive, eaten, or otherwise — might continue beyond this woodland nightmare. However, it’s Sophia Lillis that enchants brightest of all as Gretel; her effortless maturity erases any hint of the naive young girl previously bound to myth.
A parable once designed to educate children on the dangers of sweet distraction from strangers has now ripened into adolescent dilemmas. This newest incarnation is gravely concerned with the moral complexities and fallout from innocence lost. Given the gory content and suggestible material, the movie’s biggest twist is how it ever received a PG-13 rating. Whatever magic was conjured to reach a broader audience could backfire if commercial expectations run too high.
However, Orion Pictures is hoping to parallel the same level of appreciation as A24 horror classics, “The Witch” and “Hereditary.” Like those two films, “Gretel & Hansel” unravels its narrative with gradual indentation, only to explode its stakes in the final act. The drawback here is that the early expectancy for the Witch to drop her facade evaporates much of the tension. The end result might be cooked to perfection, but that doesn’t reverse the hunger pains inflicted while waiting.
Instead of getting lost in the woods while picking wild mushrooms, Gretel and Hansel are forcibly evicted from their home by their unhinged mother. Refusing convent sanctuary, Gretel and her starving brother hope to survive long enough to find a forester workforce to join. Much to Gretel’s dismay, Hansel begs his sister to retell the same scary fable she’s memory-logged from childhood. This story pertains to an ancient enchantress who cured a young baby girl’s fatal illness. The payment for this remedy was injecting the baby with malignant darkness that eventually destroyed kin and neighbor alike. As she got older, her evil became a beacon for other children to come and renounce their soul and flesh for her consumption. It doesn’t take long for the sibling pair to discover that these old wives’ tales aren’t so embellished after all.
The traveling youngsters soon find themselves confronting a black triangular house with a feast inside, waiting for famished guests to arrive. Hansel’s hunger overrides Gretel’s trepidation, and the two dine with a bottomless appetite. They discover their accommodating host is a decrepit yet lively elderly woman named Holda (Alice Krige). The makeup work on Krige is exemplary, an effective appearance hybrid of haggard vitality. Krige herself emanates trustworthiness despite all signs pointing the opposite. The recurring theme voiced by Gretel is that nothing is given without something taken. It’s a shame such wise words aren’t heeded. When demonic fantasy becomes reality for Gretel and Hansel, it’s too late since their sustenance depends on food.
Unlike Universal’s recent “The Turning,” “Gretel & Hansel” invites viewers to engage with the implications of its ending, and what it could mean for the next unforeseen chapter. Theories will abound as to what this film is truly about, hopefully eliciting some exciting discourse in the coming months. Overall, the horror re-imagining appears to consider the internal toll on a person when they cannot undo their heinous actions. In this instance, Perkins and co-writer Rob Hayes are referring to the atrocity of murder, with the plaguing darkness serving as an allegory for guilt. Furthermore, an even more terrifying question is posed: when the monsters are vanquished, what happens to the heroes that kill them? Are they now considered murderers, or are they victims of circumstance? Such ethical ambivalence makes “Gretel & Hansel” an unpredictable trek down a worn fairy tale path.