Halloween and horror movies go together like tricks and treats. Horror movies vary from classic Hollywood monster chilling franchises like "Dracula," "Frankenstein," "The Wolf Man" and "The Mummy" to depraved slashers and supernatural sagas like "Friday the 13th," "The Exorcist," and "Alien." If you're not a gut-munching gorehound, but you want something that will give you shivers without shocks, director Osgood Perkins' "Gretel & Hansel," a revisionist spin on Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's vintage fairy tale, qualifies as ideal fare. Lenser Galo Olivares's mesmerizing cinematography, Christine McDonagh's surreal art direction, and Jeremy Reed's menacing production designs make this PG-13 creeper worth every moment of its trim 87-minutes. Anybody who saw "Star Trek: First Contact" (1996) will recognize Alice Krige as the ghoulish necromancer. Initially, you may not recognize Sophia Lillis as Gretel. She wears her hair cropped short like a teenage prince. Lillis was one of the best things about Andy Muschietti's theatrical, two-chapter remake of Stephen King's novel "It." She played Beverly Marsh and hung out with the heroes. Meanwhile, scenarist Rob Hayes and Perkins-son of legendary "Psycho" star Anthony Perkins-have re-imagined this Grimm yarn. Happily, "Gretel & Hansel" delivers its share of unobtrusive jump scares that may catch you off-guard. The filmmakers rely on fantasy content to appeal to your imagination rather than a cornucopia of appalling gore to repel you. The more impressionable an audience, the greater the impact this atmospheric film will exert. Krige's serenely diabolical performance as the witch is unforgettable. She looks like a female incarnation of Max Schreck's hideous vampire in the black & white, German silent film "Nosferatu" (1922), the oldest known surviving Dracula movie on record.
"Gretel & Hansel" opens with an ominous prologue. Doubling as the narrator, Alice Krige relates a story about the Beautiful Child in a pink cap. The parents fear their Beautiful Child will not survive her first winter. The father consults an Enchantress who vanquishes the sickness, but she replaces it with second sight and other evil powers. The village once adored the Beautiful Child. Now, they dread her. Although they want her to read their futures, they deplore the tragic things she predicts about them. Later, the Child prompts her father to commit suicide by wielding a burning iron as a tongue depressor and the village exiles her in the woods. Nevertheless, the Child isn't alone long. The prologue concludes with a moral. "Nothing is given without something else being taken away." Presumably, since she narrated the prologue, Krige is the witch that our protagonists encounter.
Originally, Hansel was older than Gretel in the legendary German folktale. Perkins and Hayes have re-imagined the basics. Now, Gretel is older of the two. In the Brothers Grimm version, the mother abandoned her children in the woods because their ravenous appetites left only morsels for her husband and herself. For the record, a famine had ravaged the land, and hundreds had starved to death. In Perkins' spin on the yarn, however, an insane mother evicts her daughter Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and her younger brother Hansel (newcomer Samuel Leakey) from her domicile. Earlier, Gretel's father had died; he had toiled as a woodcutter. The mother drives her children out because the house is cluttered with too many ghosts. Few illusions does she cherish about life. "Dig yourselves some pretty little graves," she advises Gretel, "and dig one for your mother, too." The forlorn children wander the wilderness in search of food and end up snacking on mushrooms. The 'shrooms scene is the only amusing moment in an otherwise humorless film. Perkins shows Gretel gnawing on a toadstool one minute; the next minute spasms of laughter erupt from her as if she were high on psychedelic drugs. Eventually, these destitute kids discover an A-frame cottage in the middle of nowhere. The aroma of cake lures Hansel to the gloomy dwelling. The cottage is as dark as obsidian and its windows glow with an eerie red haze. Peering into the house like voyeurs, the children feast their gluttonous eyes on the sight of platters piled high with sweet treats and meats. The witch who occupies the premises, Holda (Alice Krige), is only too happy to feed them. Gratefully, Gretel and Hansel pitch in to help Holda with the daily chores. Earlier, Gretel had turned down a job as a housekeeper because her prospective employer had asked if her virginity were intact. While they lodge with Holda, Gretel has some genuinely spooky dreams. Anybody who sleeps in a haunted house like Holda's is liable to experience some howlers. In one dream, our heroine witnesses a far younger Holda (Jessica De Gouw covered with tattoos) materialize out of an oily puddle. She casts a spell on heaps of slimy, mutilated body parts and transforms them into appetizing food. Later, Gretel acquits herself as a worthwhile adversary and triumphs over the treacherous witch.
In an "Entertainment Weekly" interview, Perkins justified the protagonists' age change of age. "It's awfully faithful to the original story. It's got really only three principal characters: Hansel, Gretel, and the Witch. We tried to find a way to make it more of a coming of age story. I wanted Gretel to be somewhat older than Hansel, so it didn't feel like two 12-year-olds - rather a 16-year-old and an 8-year-old. As hypnotic as Sophie Lillis is as the heroine, her character boasts gifts of her own that sets her apart from ordinary individuals and proves more than a match for the wicked Holda. French pop/rock composer Robin Coudert provides an uncanny instrumental soundtrack reminiscent of something that the rock group Goblin composed for a Dario Argento Euro slasher movie. Mild but malicious, this cultured horror thriller boasts some unrivaled phantasmagoric moments that will quicken your pulse. Indeed, Perkins' film is closer to its unexpurgated source material than most mainstream movies. Altogether, competently orchestrated and gorgeously photographed, "Gretel & Hansel" shares little in common with either the Mother Goose or the Walt Disney versions.
Gretel & Hansel
Action / Fantasy / Horror / Mystery / Thriller
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1 hr 27 min