Horror films released early in the year always make me worry. Will this be a waste of my time or something that catches me by surprise? Fortunately, Gretel & Hansel falls in the second category. Fairy tales might evolve into huge productions like the Maleficent movies or Disney versions of classic fables. Rarely do these fairy tales go dark and get even darker. The original Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm only spans a few pages and serves as the origin of the idea of leaving a trail of bread crumbs. This modern retelling flips the title around to reflect the focus of the plot. Like the actions of the famous witch of the story, Gretel & Hansel lures you in with the tempting familiarity of the fairy tale and turns things upside down as it reveals its true nature.
Let’s get one thing straight from the start. I love almost everything about this movie. Director Oz Perkins and writer Rob Hayes took their mission to reimagine or update the classic story to the next level and created a world all of their own. With a running time of less than 90 minutes, there’s simply no time to be bored, and the filmmakers wouldn’t let you be anyway. What remains from the original plot is that sister and brother Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Samuel Leakey) get sent away from home to fend for themselves in the woods and encounter a witch (Alice Krige) who has her sights on things other than the siblings’ well-being. This story goes down another, darker path as the witch recognizes the burgeoning power within Gretel and teaches her how to enhance her natural skills in a mix of a coming-of-age story and the fairy tale.
Lillis already proved her acting skills in It and its sequel, so she had me as a fan from the beginning. Her Gretel is on the verge of womanhood much like herself, whereas Leakey’s cute Hansel complains, whines and seems confused about almost everything. If the intention of the filmmakers was to make a female empowerment movie, all of the elements are there. For me, the relationship between Gretel and the witch instead feels more like apprentice and teacher. Both Krige and Lillis narrate at different times, so their experiences fuel the fire, so to speak. When I saw It, I immediately thought that Lillis reminded me of a young Amy Adams. I had hoped for Adams to play Lillis’s adult character in the sequel. While that didn’t happen, the two actresses share that relationship in Sharp Objects. With a trailer for Adams’s The Woman in the Window preceding the screening, Lillis’s narration echoed Adams’s voice from the trailer. I first saw Krige in 1981’s Ghost Story, and she has a long list of credits both in and out of the horror genre. Her creepy witch with black fingers walks the line between menacing and caring so perfectly that it’s no wonder that Gretel’s suspicious while Hansel just wants to eat well and play with saws and axes.
Gretel & Hansel establishes the mood from the first minute and never switches to anything remotely cheery despite some scenes that take place in daylight. Filmed in Ireland, the woods fit a fairy tale perfectly, and Perkins captures many shots of the trees as if they were alive and moving in on the characters. I don’t know anything about composer of the music. Going by simply Rob, the orchestral passages and synthesizer enhancements remind me of some of the best horror soundtracks by Goblin. Perkins doesn’t ruin the mood with cheap techniques. Dread fills every frame, so the two — I counted — jump scares that Perkins throws in fit the narrative rather than just jar you out of your seat.
If you pay attention, you might just notice a lot of visual cues and similar sounds and references. Triangles abound with obvious inclusions like the witch’s pointed hat, a frame made around an enchantress and the design of the witch’s house. The shape appears in other ways that you’ll notice once you know that it’s key to the visual design of the film. Stars repeatedly appear on surfaces as well as the obvious ones in the sky. Gretel and Hansel put their noses together and snort like pigs as an endearing sibling act, and references to pigs go beyond these acts and the roasted pig on the witch’s dinner table. The sound effects might cause you to cringe with how vibrant they are. Rumbling stomachs, children’s screams and especially the slurping, sucking noise made by the witch spreading sap on her hands stand out.
Reinventions of horror classics go back many decades with movies like The Howling, An American Werewolf in London and The Company of Wolves for the werewolf myth. The Brothers Grimm have so many other tales that could be explored in this way, so I hope that Perkins or another filmmaker gets inspired later on. Obvious inspiration of one scene from The Blair Witch Project and weirdness like 2016’s The Witch came to mind while watching. Hansel would never want to feast on the witch’s food without the artistry of food stylist Ann Kenny, who deserves a mention. Early on, Gretel wonders how someone would get their own fairy tale told and passed along. Gretel & Hansel uncovers the origin of such a story and creatively delves deeper into the personalities within.