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It makes all the sense in the world to try and adapt the centuries-old story of Hansel & Gretel as a horror film. At its core, we’re talking about a tale where a pair of children are abandoned in the woods, get lost, and eventually come upon a witch who has designs to eat them like a steak dinner. With a properly applied atmosphere, and enough emphasis on these terrible, terrible details, it’s not a project that needs to steer far from its source material.

It’s this in mind that Osgood Perkins’ Gretel & Hansel is so damn frustrating. From an aesthetic standpoint, it does so much right. The film is made with a period-dedicated style reminiscent of Robert Eggers’ genius directorial debut The Witch, and it uses both looming forests and handheld photography to effectively to create what is really the exact grim ambiance you’d want from this kind of take on this material. The ultimate problem, though is that the movie also has zero follow-through, and is entirely toothless.

Watching it is a lot like the experience of being the titular heroine at the witch’s dinner table: there is what appears to be sumptuous feast presented, but the truth about what’s below the surface is deeply unfortunate. The scariest this movie gets is when a witch-shaped silhouette hauntingly stands at a distance in the woods – and that kind of moment is not only used 20 times, but stops being effective after the first. For a reason that’s really hard to fully fathom, Gretel & Hansel is being released with a PG-13 rating, and the most glaring effect that it has on the edit is that the film constantly cuts away right as something really disturbing is about to happen, completely robbing it of any impact. It becomes a horror movie without any actual horror, and a waste of all its potential.

Written by Rob Hayes, the movie takes audiences back centuries to a destitute home in a destitute village where we meet Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and her brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey). Unable to get a job as a housekeeper with a neighbor, Gretel and her sibling are thrown out by their mother and sent into the woods so that they won’t be a burden to her anymore.

After days of wandering, and growing incredibly hungry, Gretel and Hansel come upon a small house, and looking in through the window they discover a banquet unlike anything they’ve ever seen. They initially try to break in, but after being found by the homeowner, Holda (Alice Krige), they find themselves not treated as intruders, but welcomed. Holda accepts the siblings doing chores in exchange for room and board, but having grown up hearing a fairy tale teaching her to be wary of any gift-givers, and possessing a kind of second sight, Gretel remains ever suspicious of her host.

Gretel & Hansel really is beautiful, and features smart cinematography.

Dingy and desolate as the world of the film may be, it’s most definitely Gretel & Hansel’s design that elevates it, as first-time feature cinematographer Galo Olivares and Osgood Perkins collaborate to create some really gorgeous shots. An extensive use of handheld camera work and what look like SnorriCam rigs effectively bring the audience right into the forest with the main characters, and this works excellently with the photography of the landscape, which is portrayed as endless and imposing.

The style gives the movie an important unique flavor, particularly because so much else about it leaves you feeling totally unimpressed.

“Scary” isn’t a word that describes Gretel & Hansel; “Moody” is more appropriate.

You’d think that filmmakers and production companies behind a horror-centric version of Hansel & Gretel would understand that children need to be shown in actual peril for the project to be anywhere close to effective – but it feels like someone balked at that idea in the making of Gretel & Hansel, and it left the movie with nothing to work with. While there are techniques that can be applied that allow the full magnitude of horrible things to fit into a PG-13 package, there is strangely no artfulness in the film’s approach to its scarier material, and it hobbles the finished product.

From the way it’s made, it’s hard to determine exactly who the film is meant to be for. While the material might be made to be appropriate for younger viewers, it’s hard to imagine them being amped up about meditative cinematography and era-accurate details. And while mature people will appreciate its aesthetic values, there’s nothing to it as a scary movie.

The movie isn’t IT-level quality, but Sophia Lillis continues to do impressive work.

For what it’s worth, another player bringing their A-game to the outing is Sophia Lillis – the movie marking her first horror feature outside the world of Stephen King adaptations. And to her credit, she does great work with the material. It’s not always easy for younger performers to navigate conversational styles that are more than a century old, but Lillis fully sells it. It’s a strong turn, and satisfying proof that the actress can carry a film; it’s just too bad that the total experience isn’t quite at the same level of her contributions.

Given how many classic fairy tales are shockingly disturbing when you break them down, it’s surprising that we don’t see more swings like Gretel & Hansel – and it’s sad to recognize that this film probably won’t get more of them made. It’s not a disaster by any stretch, but it’s also easy to see how it could have been much, much better.

5 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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