Oz Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) directs Gretel & Hansel, a retelling of the 200-year-old fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm. Writer Rob Hayes’ choice to change the story a bit is inspired, somehow making it even grimmer than before. It isn’t a film for every viewer, but it does a lot to give hope to the inconsistent genre of dark fantasy.
After being forced from their home when Gretel (Sophia Lillis) refuses to take an immoral job at her mother’s request, she and her younger brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) must find their way in a dreary, unforgiving world. On the verge of starvation, they stumble upon an isolated house, and through the window, they see a table set for a feast. The home’s owner, Holda (Alice Krige), takes them in, temporarily employing them both with chores around the house. But as the jobs begin to take on a more permanent feel, both realize that changes are taking place that will alter their lives forever.
This story, a darker version than any ever screened before, comes much closer to the feel of the original fairy tale. From the first moment, right through the final resolution, the script provides an authentic feeling of desperation. Even small characters make a significant impact, giving motivation for how Gretel reacts as time goes on. Choosing to make her a caretaker verge on womanhood rather than keep her and Hansel close in age is a brilliant stroke. While the script is sometimes disorienting, the surreal feel this creates does nothing but enhance the story. Repeated themes of both physical and emotional hunger complete a sense of desperation and searching as the children discover more about Holda. And importantly, the terrifying moments in the film go beyond mundane jump scares to have depth and disturbing meaning at the same time.
Perkins chooses to take some chances as director, and most of them pay off. There are a couple of things that don’t quite work, not because of the execution, but because they don’t receive closure. Other than this, each scene is a masterpiece of setting. He manages an already talented cinematographer with surgical skill, combining dark, picturesque long shots with panicked close-ups and unexpected, dizzying camera angles. These are enhanced by macabre sets that are beautiful and terrible at the same time. Fans of films such as The Company of Wolves and Eyes of Fire will appreciate the similar style more than others, while some others might feel something is missing - at least by the standard of “in your face” horror.
Sophia Lillis’ portrayal of a girl who suddenly has womanhood thrust upon her in more ways than one is solid. Gretel faces confusion and indecision, all in the most desperate of situations, and Lillis conveys this. The star is Alice Krige as Holda, the witch weaving her spells to draw children to their doom. Every moment she is on-screen is creepy and disturbing – and oddly, it’s the most intense when she is smiling or friendly. This is a testament to Krige’s ability to get under the skin of the viewer.
In addition to being dark fantasy, this is a tale of a young woman choosing her destiny several times rather than having it written for her. Despite this, it is a genuinely disturbing story that is only enhanced by this subtext. And even though it is a new spin on a classic tale, it never ends up lost in the woods.