‘Gretel & Hansel’ whips up twisted tale of childhood terror

Noah Levine

If Jack and Jill tumbling down a hill wasn’t harrowing enough, Gretel and Hansel are here to live among a cannibalistic witch.

“Gretel & Hansel” is a twisted fairytale horror film from director Osgood Perkins (“The Blackcoat’s Daughter”). The grim adventure follows a pair of siblings, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Samuel Leakey), who fall under the care of a mysterious old woman in this dark retelling of the classic fairy tale. Perkins and screenwriter Rob Hayes twist and mutate the original tale to embrace a new and terrifying identity. 

The macabre fairy tale only features three explicit main characters, but the actors’ performances are strong enough to keep things afloat. Horror prodigy Lillis leads the titular duo with her performance as Gretel. For most of the film, Lillis’ Gretel is the strong and cautious big sister, contrasting greatly with Leakey’s impulsive Hansel. Lillis’s performance is nuanced yet evocative. Her facial reactions emphasize the harrowing situations her character finds herself in, offering insight into her emotion. She delivers dialogue with supreme naturality, breathing life into an otherwise fictional storybook character. The same goes for Leakey, who brings an optimistic innocence to Hansel in the film’s dark world. His childish quips land gracefully, often providing a glimpse of comedy during the tense story. 

Alice Krige dials up the terror with her portrayal of Holda, a mysterious old woman who allows the children to reside in her A-frame cottage. Krige, looking through a sea of off-putting and uncanny makeup, is incredibly hard to read. This is not a negative thing, as her character appears unpredictable and morally gray. She delivers dialogue with edge and is consistently unsettling. 

One of the most immersive aspects of the film is its beautifully haunting score by Robin Coudert. His elegant and harrowing synth melodies cast a foreboding ambiance across the entire film. The eerie tracks heighten the dizzying and confining world of the film while characters explore perilous woods and dimly lit rooms. The music adds a whimsical tone to certain visuals that wouldn’t be as effective without it. 

The set design and cinematography feel as if they are ripped from fairy tale illustrations. Holda’s residence juts into the foggy sky with its pointed roofing, set against fog-covered, decaying wood. Emphasized smoke effects and colored lighting create a fantasy world shrouded in beautiful mystery with luminescent oranges and blues. The visuals are endlessly captivating and consistently immersive. 

Although the story of Gretel and Hansel is a tale as old as time, the film manages to portray it in a new light, interweaving themes of adolescence and uncertain fate. The general trajectory plays out in the same way, with an old witch luring children into her delicious-smelling home, but the execution is much more harrowing and explicitly horrific. The film remains tense and intriguing for almost all of its runtime, although it idles at the midway point. Regardless, the adventure culminates in some truly wonderful final sequences that express cathartic and mysterious themes. 

“Gretel & Hansel” is a beautifully packaged piece of period horror. The performances, set design, cinematography and score work together to transport audiences to a nightmarish variant of a childhood tale. 

Rating: 4 slurpable hair follicles out of 5