'Gretel And Hansel' Review: A Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

A brooding, beautiful, mystical bedtime story, Gretel and Hansel has been delegated to a release in the dead days of January, but deserves better. Oz Perkins's mystical, occult-heavy take on the classic folktale from the Brothers Grimm has so much style, and so many bold ideas, that it seems destined to become a cult classic someday – the type of film people find years from now and ask, "Why the hell haven't I heard of this before?"

Perkins, who co-wrote the script with Rob Hayes, takes the basic framework of the tale – a brother and sister wander into the woods and encounter a witch – and use it to craft a distinctly feminine story – the tale of a young girl becoming a woman, and all the power – and scorn – that comes with that. That girl on the cusp of womanhood is Gretel, played by Sophia Lillis. Lillis has fast cemented herself as one of the best young performers working right now, and she continues her streak here, playing Gretel as a no-nonsense character who refuses to sit pretty and smile while lecherous old men are asking her if her "maidenhood" is still intact.

Teenage Gretel and her much younger brother Hansel (Sam Leakey) wander the countryside, aimless and hungry. Their father is gone, and their mother is unwell. After she chases the siblings from the house with an ax, the siblings stumble through the woods, where they first encounter a helpful Huntsman (Charles Babalola), and then, later, end up tripping-out on some wild mushrooms. The scene of the siblings laughing in hysterics while the woods around them warm and blur out of focus is one fo the many indications that Perkins isn't concerned with making his tale family-friendly. It carries a PG-13 rating, but it's a hard PG-13, as the story goes to considerably dark places and unleashes a plethora of nasty, ghoulish imagery before the credits roll.

Custom dictates that Gretel and Hansel will stumble upon a magical house deep in the woods, and sure enough, they do – a modernist-looking abode that's pitch-black, adorned with occult symbols, and loaded with delicious food. This is the house of Holda (Alice Krige), an elderly woman who is never the least bit convincing as anything other than evil. Krige's performance is so creepy, and so specific, that it's hard to believe that the siblings would agree to spend time with her, no matter how hungry they may be.

But sure enough, the duo soon takes up residence in Holda's house, and while Hansel goofs off in the woods trying to learn to use an ax, Gretel and the old woman grow uncomfortably close. Holda takes a shine to Gretel, and sees within her the same dark energy that she herself possesses. She wants to teach Gretel that she has the power to use magic as well, but since she's female, she's destined to be hated and feared by the world at large.

Through it all, Gretel suffers from nightmares – or are they visions? – of terrible things – ghoulish figures, writhing body parts, and blood and ooze that pools and spills every which way. Cinematographer Galo Olivares captures it all with stark beauty – the film is as shadowy as a Francisco Goya painting and as rustic and autumnal as the work of Andrew Wyeth. Most scenes are either lit by flickering candles or bathed in an icy blue blight. You can feel the dread and darkness radiating from the imagery here, all of it underscored by symbols and runes designed to evoke unease. This film is a visual feast.

It's too bad that the film is saddled with an overly descriptive narration that smacks of some producer somewhere insisting it be added to clear things up. Perkins is fond of slow-burn pacing, and you can sense that slow-burn lurking in Gretel and Hansel, but it's sidelined by a narration from Gretel that tells us things we can easily decipher on our own. This ultimately hurts an otherwise strong film, and gives Gretel and Hansel the feeling of a Young Adult novel, even though the imagery doesn't match that at all.

Gretel and Hansel will find its audience. It might not be during its theatrical run, but sooner or later, those who cherish stylish horror with a fresh dash of folksy charm will embrace this movie for the beautiful dark twisted fantasy it is./Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10