Gretel & Hansel is all about mood, tone, and atmosphere. Horror fans who crave the rush of jump scares you get in stuff like The Conjuring or Insidious will probably come away disappointed. Those who appreciate the cerebral, steeped-in-mystery vibe of pictures along the lines of The Witch or Midsommar, on the other hand, will discover a little gem that oozes eeriness.
This is a twist on the classic Grimm fairy tale, told from the viewpoint of Gretel (Sophia Lillis from IT: Chapter One and Chapter Two). She and younger brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) are kicked out of their home and forced to fend for themselves. The siblings eventually stumble across a house in the woods, occupied by a witch named Holda (Alice Krige). Gretel offers to do chores in exchange for room and board. In the process, Holda teaches her how to develop her “gifts,” which include telekinesis. Then Gretel comes to believe that Holda has stolen the souls of children, which means she and Hansel are in grave danger.
Gretel & Hansel is in no way a plot-driven movie. What I've just described is all there is. Nevertheless, director Osgood Perkins (The Blackcoat's Daughter) is just trying to stay true to the form of fairy tales, which are more about a moral or lesson than anything. Working from Rob Hayes' script, he crafts a feminine-empowerment story in which a teenage girl comes into her own as she attempts to protect her brother -- the only family member she really has left -- from an adult with corrupt intentions. It's a metaphor not just for maturity, but also for the value of taking a stand against those who would exploit children.
Perkins explores those ideas with suitably ominous style. He opens the film with a widescreen prologue, but then immediately shifts into a square aspect ratio that generates a sense of claustrophobia. Galo Olivares's cinematography accentuates shadows inside Holda's house, so that whenever the film shifts outside (or into the secret space under the house), the bright contrast seems shocking. We can feel that her home is dangerous because it contains genuine darkness. In sections, intentionally disjointed editing creates a sense of disorientation. The cumulative effect of all these things is as artistically pleasing as it is unsettling. Because of that, the psychologically disturbing finale pays off in a satisfying manner.
Sophia Lillis wisely takes a subtle approach to her role. She projects intelligence that makes Gretel's plan to outwit Holda seem plausible. Alice Krige is the scene-stealer, though. She, too, goes the subtle route, refusing to chew scenery as the witch. The actress does a lot with her tone of voice as she delivers certain lines of dialogue, and the sinister looks she gives Gretel and her brother are creepy. It's a magnificent performance.
Gretel & Hansel took me by surprise. The ambiance it establishes is fun to get lost in for an hour and a half. No, the movie won't give you terrible nightmares. It is, however, a sophisticated piece of horror that sets you on edge within the first couple minutes, then holds you there.
out of four
Gretel & Hansel is rated PG-13 for disturbing images/thematic content, and brief drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.