In this new take on the classic story of Hansel and Gretel, teenage girl Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is forced out of her house by her deranged mother after she refuses to be the servant (and "more") to a rich man. She must now fend for both herself and her younger brother, Hansel (Samuel Leakey). After wandering through the wilderness, starving, they come upon the house of a strange, isolated old woman (Alice Krige) who takes them in. Of course, you all know where the story goes from here.
The film's director, Osgood "Oz" Perkins (son of Anthony), directed a film a few years back called The Blackcoat's Daughter. I really enjoyed that film, and I would definitely consider it to be a hidden gem. Gretel & Hansel, however, is the perfect example of a good director trying to salvage a lousy script. The finished product isn't awful, but it's not great, either. It's one of many recent horror movies that features a message about female empowerment, and this one does so with varying results. The opening in which a prospective employer tries to groom her into being a mistress is appropriately creepy, and it was actually one of the most unsettling scenes in the movie. However, their portrayal of Gretel as a "modern woman" feels far too anachronistic. She's the only one with an American accent, her hairstyle is entirely out-of-period, and her on-the-nose inner monologue doesn't add anything to the film overall. Sophia Lillis is one of the better young actresses to have emerged within the past few years, but her character just seems out of place.
The other members of the cast are pretty solid. Samuel Leakey, who plays Hansel, isn’t half bad, given the fact that his character could have easily ended up being more annoying than endearing. It’s a fairly undemanding role, so there isn’t a ton of room to make much of an impression, good or bad, but I’d be open to seeing more from him in the future. The true standout performance is, of course, Alice Krige as Holda, the witch. She’s creepy as hell, and she gives the role a little bit more nuance than one might expect. The makeup they have her in is terrific, and it really adds to the strangeness of the character.
The real star of Gretel & Hansel is the atmosphere, which is just exquisite. There are some surprisingly disturbing images for a PG-13 film, and I’m glad that they were able to make the cut, because it really is haunting. The forest truly feels like an endless void, and you really get that feeling of being stranded. I also loved the design of the house. In this film, rather than the house being made of candy, the children simply smell the enormous feast that the witch has sitting out on her dining room table. Instead, the house is a bizarre, secluded cabin with strange patterns on the door, and it’s pretty eerie. The film is also lit in a very ominous way. It’s largely either natural lighting or candlelight, and this really helps add to the sinister mood. Now here’s where it gets a little tricky: during the second act of the movie, hardly anything happens. During that slog, the entire film rests solely on the shoulders of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, as good as said atmosphere is, it can only do so much when there is hardly any tension.
The film’s real fatal flaw is its script. It’s not particularly well-paced, and some of the dialogue comes across as unnatural. I was also a bit thrown off by a couple of odd instances in the film. There are two particular moments (at least, that I can remember) that were played completely seriously, but they felt more like something you would see in a spoof. They don’t even really come across as unintentionally funny, they’re just... odd. I won’t spoil what they are, but I will point out that George Carlin fans will find one scene oddly familiar.
Oz Perkins’ Gretel & Hansel boasts some creepy visuals and Gothic atmosphere, but it’s unfortunately held back by a somewhat amateurish script. It’s plenty spooky, and it certainly isn’t unambitious, but it can’t seem to rise above being the bare minimum as a whole.