You know the story, but you’ve been telling it wrong.
In a land said to be cursed, a girl on the cusp of womanhood named Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is cast out with her younger brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) and abandoned to fend for themselves — homeless and starving. A chance encounter with a benevolent hunter (Charles Babalola) sets them upon a path toward a possible future… until they encounter the forest home of Holda (Alice Krige), a mysterious old crone in a mysterious black house. Gifted with sumptuous food and warm beds, the siblings accept their good fortune and offer assistance in return where they can, but Gretel’s natural insight senses hidden wrongness even as she is drawn to Holda’s teachings. With the honey trap slowly closing around them, it falls to Gretel to make a fateful decision that will change their lives forever.
The single-credited writer Rob Hayes has few listed works under his belt. Director Oz Perkins has made a couple of dark moody thrillers. The trailers suggest high concept with a small cast, looking similar in theme to A24’s The Witch but on a reduced scale while decidedly more “Grimm” in origin. As the seasonal post-awards purge of shelf-sitters and hard-to-market films trickles out, will this Sophia Lillis vehicle successfully capitalize on her work in It and It: Chapter 2 or be banished to obscurity like 2019’s Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase?
Making a ninety-minute film feel like a two-hour movie is no easy task, but in this case it seems deliberate. With fixed cameras lingering over wide shots and a choice of style as substance, Gretel and Hansel evokes imagery akin to the remake of Suspiria but without the pretentiousness, even tapping into the dripping discomfort of Jordan Peel’s Us. While a tedious watch for those expecting a running-screaming slasher-horror, this atmospheric slow-burn thriller suggests more than it shows, feigning complexity but doing it very well.
In perhaps an effort to seem timeless, the production employs a hodge-podge of contradictory elements, like why Gretel’s Midwest American accent sounds so different from Hansel’s British-isms; were the kids adopted? From buildings to clothing (even hats), it’s confusingly eclectic, suggesting one of two possibilities: either the story exists in a kind of Matrix-meta storybook brought to life by sheer force of will, or this is some post-apocalyptic future where such elements co-exist because it’s what has survived… yet no one remembers from what. The latter seems best, hinting at a mystical world awakening from a dark age, although this is in no way verified or explained.
The principle cast of three lends to the effect of a stage play remade into a film, with sets comprised of shapes and textures rather than material things for the characters to inhabit. Jessica De Gouw appears as a younger Holda in flashbacks along with other background characters, but setting Hansel aside for a moment, the story is a literal chess match between that which was and what will be. The question lingering over the credits is: did everyone get exactly what they needed, deserved, or secretly wanted?
Gretel and Hansel is rated PG-13 for disturbing images/thematic content, brief drug material, and taking itself far more seriously than Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Three skull recommendation out of four