By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige and Samuel J. Leakey
Directed by Osgood Perkins
Written by Rob Hayes
As live-action updates of beloved fairy tales go, GRETEL & HANSEL is the anti-MALEFICENT. Director Osgood Perkins and screenwriter Rob Hayes have foregone tricking up their movie with a lot of unnecessary spectacle, or overcomplicating things to get the story to feature length. Instead, they’ve aimed straight for the dark heart of the legend, and it’s been brought off with impeccable, intoxicating craft.
With his debut feature THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER, Perkins spun an eerie, interior-oriented chiller that elicited consistent shivers as it dug deep into the psyches of troubled and tormented young women. Hayes’ script provides him a similar opportunity in a more fantastical setting, with Gretel now a teenager (played by IT’s Sophia Lillis) who is staunchly protective of her preteen brother Hansel (Samuel J. Leakey) in a time that demands it. Food is scarce and Gretel misses out on a chance to help provide when she is turned down for a housekeeping job, and she and Hansel are cast out of their family home to fend for themselves. An appealing bond is quickly established between the two, with little Hansel questioning the world and their place in it, and Gretel responding with both reassurance and as a realist about the perils of the world around them, in which adults can’t necessarily by trusted.
Perkins, Hayes and Lillis manage the tricky gambit of updating their classic material’s themes in ways that don’t call undue attention to themselves or break the fantasy-world spell. Gretel’s meeting with the condescending man of the house could stand in for the experience of many a modern young woman, and Lillis’ short haircut and delivery have a contemporary quality, yet she and her experiences nonetheless feel one with the timeless world Perkins and his team have conjured up. That environment becomes both richer and more threatening when Gretel and Hansel, making their way through woods that seem infused with eerie secrets, arrive at a house where they spy through a window a banquet laid out inside. When they venture in, they are greeted by the lady of the house (Alice Krige), who welcomes them and encourages them to stay—and eat. Dressed all in black with fingers to match, she encourages other things in Gretel as well, sensing that the girl has special abilities she has not yet begun to tap.
Krige, in excellent makeup by Liz Byrne, gives a delicious performance, savoring dialogue that is by turns imperious, intimidating, cajoling and seductive. Her witch may prey on children, but in Gretel she sees a potential kindred spirit she attempts to draw to her malevolent side. Lillis and Krige’s scenes together are charged with tension and foreboding, and Perkins and Hayes make Gretel’s potential temptation the crux of the film. Free of unnecessary side characters and plot digressions, GRETEL & HANSEL holds the attention, as THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER did, via a steady buildup of increasingly menacing mood and ominous details, as its heroine is drawn ever closer to the dark heart of her situation. Perkins also lands some more visceral moments, particularly one in which we find out where the witch’s food comes from.
GRETEL & HANSEL is an often macabre feast for the eyes as well. Jeremy Reed’s production design, with its emphasis on angular shapes (from stacked firewood in Gretel and Hansel’s village to a disused children’s slide outside the witch’s dwelling to that home itself), creates a scary, off-kilter environment captured with maximum shadowy, frequently fire-lit atmosphere by cinematographer Galo Olivares. Composer Rob, who previously won notice backing the gritty-city bloodshed of the MANIAC remake, proves equally adaptable to this movie’s fantastical realms and supernatural doings.
While it takes its time building its terrors, GRETEL & HANSEL has been done with such enveloping style that it becomes easy to surrender to its gradual rhythms. Only a somewhat rushed conclusion, which makes overuse of explanatory narration, disrupts the spell, but it’s a minor digression in a film that quite successfully brings to the forefront the adult nuances and fears the provided the basis of the original children’s tale.