Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Fred Berger Director: Oz Perkins Screenplay: Rob Hayes Cast: Sophia Lillis, Sammy Leakey, Alice Krige, Charles Babalola and Jessica De Gouw Distributor: Orion Pictures
Ideally, a horror film will be both stylish and scary, but most that are churned out today are neither. So you have to be pleased when a specimen shows up that’s one or the other; the notion that half a loaf is better than none is one that would have been well understood by Hansel and Gretel, the famished children of the famous Grimm fairy tale on which Oz (or Osgood) Perkins’ picture is based.
Although it features one sequence of a menacing ghoul that provides a jump shock (and as such seems to have come out of another movie entirely) and a few others graphic enough to unsettle squeamish stomachs (the sight of a basket of human entrails being spread atop a table, for instance), “Gretel & Hansel” isn’t particularly frightening. But it oozes atmosphere, and thanks to the impressionistic sets of production designer Jeremy Reed and an uncommonly subtle use of color and extraordinary care in composition by cinematographer Galo Olivares, it’s so visually striking that individual frames could be mounted on museum walls as works of art. It’s loaded—some will say overloaded—with style.
As the reversal of names in the title indicates, it’s also a revisionist take on the old chestnut that deals with such charming themes as child abuse and cannibalism. (The film has been granted a PG-13 rating by the MPAA.) In Rob Hayes’ refashioning of the story, Hansel (Sammy Leakey) is a distinctly secondary character, a hapless, helpless eight-year old who’s entirely dependent on his sixteen-year old sister (Sophia Lillis) when they’re tossed out by their mother to fend for themselves. Fortunately she will prove up to the challenge, though she and the boy indulge in eating some wild mushroom, leading to a mini-Cheech-and-Chong scene, and it takes the intervention of a stern but kindly hunter (Charles Babalola) to save them from that aforementioned ghoul.
Eventually they reach the odd-shaped house of Holda (Alice Krige)—shaped like a pyramid, with the moon often looming over its peak—where the table is laden with succulent goodies. She invites them in, showing particular interest in fattening up Hansel, whom she also introduces to the joys of using a hatchet on the surrounding trees, a task the lad eagerly embraces. As to Gretel, Holda, who as a child (Jessica De Gouw, in flashbacks) was introduced to the dark arts, encourages her to develop her own powers—instruction that in the end will prove to have been a mistake.
That turns the film into a sort of oddball coming-of-age tale, about a young woman taking charge of her life and making the choice to save her brother, against all odds, when Holda finally shows her true colors and prepares Hansel for roasting in a grim ritual that has already consumed many other children whose spirits still roam the forest. Can Gretel call upon her newly-minted strength to overcome the witch’s power?
To be honest, from the standpoint of simple coherence, “Gretel & Hansel” doesn’t fare all that well. The script suggests explanations rather than delivering them, and while the visuals are consistently arresting, the pacing imposed on them by Perkins and editor Josh Ethier is lumbering to the point of distraction; the film wallows in mood, precisely because the plot is so thin.
Still, though Leakey is rather amateurish, both in their differing ways both Lillis and Krige are quietly powerful. The former is a study in stoic determination, and one can glimpse the intelligence behind Gretel’s undemonstrative manner. Krige is all archness and affectation, shifting easily from gentility to menace and showing off her wizened makeup and peculiar wardrobe with practiced aplomb. Effects are minimal but effective (one toward the close, involving a pipe emitting an oily substance, especially so), and Robin Coudert’s score adds to the creepy ambience.
So your reaction to “Gretel & Hansel” will depend on what’s important to you in a horror film. If you want shocks and screams, it will hardly satisfy. But while it fails to provide real shudders, its highly developed sense of style creates a general mood of unease, and for some that will be enough.