A Moody Little Chiller
Who wasn't frightened as a child by the horrifically grim childhood fairy tale about an evil witch who bakes pastries to lure children into her home so she can cook and eat the youngsters for dinner? It’s a wonder any of us made it out of childhood without totally losing all of our marbles. The classic fairy-tale Hansel & Gretel published by The Brothers Grimm back in 1812 has certainly been the stuff of nightmares for generations, so it’s only appropriate that the fable get the modern horror treatment for today’s generation of horror-loving ghouls and boils.
And thankfully, it wasn’t Disney who, in their current mad dash to “live-action” everything, got their happy little hands on the idea. Instead, it’s refreshing to see the task go to The Blackcoat’s Daughter auteur Osgood (Oz) Perkins (son of Anthony Perkins) whose knack for arthouse mood and style seems perfectly suited for this black tale of horror. And save for a few stumbles and oversights, Perkins has created a dark and moody little chiller that aims directly at the black heart of the German folk tale, and ultimately offers a lot for horror fans to admire.
Perkins, working from a script by Rob Hayes, takes a few liberties with the tale by changing the age of the title characters. Rather than a pair of twelve-year-olds, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is now around sixteen years old, while her brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) is about eight. On the home front, poverty and famine have stricken the land, so it’s not long before they are soon driven from home by their distraught mother who is too poor to feed them.
As the pair set out alone through the forest searching for work, a tight bond is formed between the two, with Hansel hoping to provide for the family – despite his young age, while Gretel simply tries to keep the two safe in a world where all adults appear to be the enemy.
On their perilous trek through unwelcome territory, the two endure a near-constant barrage of danger and menace, such as mysteriously cloaked figures that skitter about the forest branches. There’s also an out-of-place magic mushroom scene that results in hallucinations after the starving children eat some polka-dotted mushrooms they find along the forest floor.
It’s in this treacherous journey that we get our most promising glimpse of Perkins’ beautiful work behind the camera and begin to understand why the filmmaker is so perfect for this job. Though it all occasionally feels a bit tipped in the favor of style over substance, Perkins’ unique arthouse sensibilities and artistic verve are so strong and commanding, that his visuals themselves carry most of the storytelling weight. However, with long stretches of flat emotion and deliberate pacing, we’re happy to simply sit and marvel at the wonderfully rendered visuals.
It’s not long before the brother and sister happen upon a witch’s home which they discover is filled with enough delicious food to feed everyone in the valley. With empty bellies and overflowing courage, the temptation is too much to resist as they are greeted by an elderly hostess (Alice Krige) who encourages them to come in and enjoy the delicious food. Krige, in all black -- with fingers to match -- turns in a chillingly brilliant performance as she chews up the scenery and spits out dialogue as the devil temptress who sees in Gretel somewhat of a kindred spirit. If you know the fairy tale story of Hansel & Gretel then you know what happens next. Hint: it ain’t pretty!
There’s a beautiful simplicity to Gretel & Hansel that is enhanced by a dearth of side characters and busy plot distractions. It is basically a three-person show that gets its drive and menace from a slow buildup of ominous mood and spooky atmosphere. The film’s themes of finding oneself and choosing our own fate are a nice second layer touch, but even at just under 90 minutes, it is probably about twenty minutes too long with an ending that has to work way too hard for its thrills and chills.
(Released by United Artists Releasing and rated “PG-13” for disturbing images/thematic content, and brief drug material.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.