For generations parents have used the German folk tale “Hansel and Gretel” as a way to lull kids to sleep. The story of two kids ditched by their father and step-mother in the forest has always had a scary edge to it but “Gretel and Hansel,” a new, dark reimagining starring “It: Chapter Two’s” Sophia Lillis, would likely leave kids with serious abandonment issues if watched before bed.
Set in the distant past, when we first meet the title characters—sixteen-year-old Gretel (Lillis) and younger brother Hensel (Samuel Leakey)—a lack of money and their mother’s madness see them sent off into a grim fairy tale to fend for themselves. To the ominous sounds of soundtrack by French pop/rock musician Robin “Rob” Coudert, the duo make their way, scrounging for food, desperate for shelter. They meet The Huntsman (Charles Babalola) who warns them against talking to wolves—“They are charming and handsome but dangerous!”—but doesn’t see fit to caution them against eating the hallucinogenic mushrooms the two starving kids find under a tree. One mind expanding trip later they come across a house. Peering into the window they see a dining table laden with food. Invited in by the elderly Holda (Alice Krige) to eat and rest, they make a deal to trade chores for rent. Holda agrees, but soon Gretel has nightmares. “Are they the result of too much rich food,” she wonders, “or are they a warning?” It seems there is more to Holda than Gretel and Hansel first thought. “We are made from the same matter,” Holda says to Gretel. “The same filth.”
The story is certainly based on the Brothers Grimm story of a cannibal witch but screenwriter Rob Hayes enhances the story with “Star Wars” allusions—Will Gretel embrace her Dark Side?—and does things with entrails that even the Brothers Grimm on their grimmest day wouldn’t dare include in one of their stories. The result is a movie heavy on atmosphere and unease but light on actual scares. Shadowy characters appear and disappear, providing some creepy visuals and the occasional jump scare but moments that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck are absent.
Instead, director Osgood Perkins (son of “Psycho” star Anthony Perkins) stresses the intense human side of the horror, the loss of a parent, abandonment and the decisions Gretel must make to ensure her brother’s safety during her coming-of-age. It’s sense of fear is primal, rooted in complicated teen feelings of someone forced to grow up too quickly.
“Gretel & Hansel” is witchier than any other version of the story and has some genuinely creepy moments but comes just shy of making a lasting impression.