“Gretel & Hansel” is a creepy variation of one fairy tale quite familiar to many of us. While staying true to the darkness of its original story by the Brothers Grimm, the movie tries a number of different things in terms of story and characters, and I enjoyed how it intrigued me with its distinctive mood and details to be savored.
At first, the movie opens with a disturbing fairy tale about one beautiful but creepy girl. When she became ill and was expected to die soon, her father was so desperate that he eventually decided to take his little daughter to a powerful enchantress, who accepted his tearful request with a certain price in exchange for that. As saving his daughter, she imbues her body with a part of her dark magic power, and, of course, that turns out to be not a very good thing for her father and others in his village.
This fairy tale is the one which Gretel (Sophia Lillis) often tells to her younger brother Hansel (Sam Leakey) during their bedtime. While it may scare him to some degree with a moral lesson, the reality surrounding them has been much harsher and scarier to them at present. After their father died not so long ago, they and their mother have struggled with the ongoing famine and poverty, and Gretel has no choice but to go to the house belonging to some rich old prick. She simply wants to be hired as a new housemaid but, what do you know, this prick turns out to be more interested in whether her maidenhood is, pardon my language, “intact”.
As a strong-willed girl with pride and integrity, Gretel refuses to bend herself to this prick’s demand, so she returns without any good news, and her mother, who has been rather unstable in her mind due to their continuing despair and hopelessness, declares that, from now on, there will be no space for Gretel and Hansel in her house. Discerning that there will be more trouble due to her mother, Gretel promptly walks out of the house along with Hansel, who is understandably not so pleased in addition to being quite hungry.
During their first night outside the house, Gretel and Hansel are soon reminded of how harsh and dangerous their world can be, but, fortunately, they happen to encounter a hunter living around a nearby forest, who turns out to be much more generous and compassionate than expected. As allowing them to stay at his shabby residence for a while, he gives them an instruction on how to pass through the forest and then find some people who may hire them, though Gretel is not wholly comfortable with his gentle kindness.
Of course, once they enter the forest on the very next day, Gretel and Hansel cannot help but become agitated by the increasingly ominous mood of the forest. In addition, they get hungry again some time later, so they eventually eat mushrooms on the ground after Gretel check them out in her own way, and that leads to one of a few amusing moments in the film.
Not long after this incident, Gretel and Hansel come across a strange big wooden house located somewhere in the middle of the forest. While not being edible at all in contrast to that magical house depicted in the story of the Brothers Grimm, this house apparently looks weird and sinister in its deliberately anachronistic architecture style, but Gretel and Hansel cannot possibly resist it after discovering that there is lots of delicious food in the dining area inside the house.
As you have already expected, Gretel and Hansel soon meet an old lady living in the house, who lets them in the house and then eat those tasty dishes as much as they can. While Hansel does not mind this hospitality at all, Gretel remains skeptical and watchful, and the moody atmosphere inside the house further amplifies her suspicion. As a girl with some special gift, she comes to sense more of the darkness lurking around here and there in the house, and it looks like the old lady is hiding something insidious behind her back.
It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Gretel and Hansel will subsequently come to face the fiendish side of their suspicious host, but the screenplay by Rob Hayes delivers a number of unexpected moments, and its expected climax, which is accompanied with lots of fire as you have already guessed, is skillfully delivered by director Osgood Perkins and his crew members including cinematographer Galo Olivares. As previously shown from “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” (2016), Perkins is a talented filmmaker who knows how to engage us via mood and details, and he and Olivares provide us several striking visual moments packed with creepiness gradually encroaching upon the screen.
The movie is basically a three-character story, and its three main performers are effective in their respective roles. While Sophia Lillis, who recently drew our attention with her plucky performance in “It” (2017) and its 2019 sequel, is believable in her character’s gradual transformation along the story, Alice Krige has some naughty fun with her devious character, and young performer Sam Leakey holds his own small place between his two co-stars.
In conclusion, “Gretel & Hansel” is another well-made horror film from Perkins, and I appreciate how it takes its time in building up story, mood, and characters before going all the way on full horror mode as required. The overall result is rather modest on the whole, but it works as well as intended while often impressing and intriguing us with its effective elements, so I will not grumble for now.