The old Grimm Brothers’ tale “Hansel and Gretel” that has terrified children for generations is being revamped and brought to the big screen once again. But this go around, director Osgood Perkins and co-writer Rob Hayes only use the original story as an inspiration to present a new film that’s slower, thematically deeper, and relies on atmospheric merit rather than tangible scares.

The plot follows the traditional framework involving two young siblings, Gretel — played by Sophia Lillis — and Sam Leakey as Hansel, who are ousted from their home by their mother after she can no longer provide for them. While wandering the woods in an attempt to find a place to stay, they stumble across a simple cottage inhabited by a seemingly kind old woman named Holda — played by Alice Krige. The longer they stay, Holda’s intentions become increasingly sinister.

The story has reconfigured the ages of the children, Gretel is now a teenager while Hansel is still a young boy. This serves two functions: one, changing the dynamic between the two and establishing Gretel as the older sister, and two, bringing Gretel’s looming evolution into a woman to the forefront.

The traditional title of “Hansel and Gretel” has been reversed, and it’s not a coincidence. Gretel is the protagonist now. She makes an astonishing discovery partway through that I dare not reveal, but is metaphorically related to her growth without the presence of parental figures. The plot revelations may leave audience members scoffing, and the magical abilities of the witch aren’t entirely defined, but viewed through the lens of Gretel’s quest, it’s all part of her character progression.

Hollywood has tried remaking classic fairy tales into big-budget action spectacles before, with predictably poor results. “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” from 2013 was successful at the box office, but bombed with critics, and never saw any sequels. Therefore, while this incarnation of the story is far removed from any prior version, it’s safe to say that it’s all the better for it.

From the get-go, director Oz Perkins signals that this is a movie about visuals and atmosphere. As a result, the film is paced exceedingly slow. While this pace could potentially turn viewers off, the imagery is appealing and each progressive scene builds tension effectively.

Startling symmetry and sharp piercing architecture are sure to elicit hair-raising responses and memorable scenes. Both the interior and exterior of the witch’s house are subtly malevolent in their appearance, a testament to Jeremy Reed’s production design and Christine McDonagh’s art direction.

The cinematography created by Galo Olivares properly generates the feeling of an evil presence lurking in the environment. Even at the beginning of the film when Gretel and Hansel’s home is largely dark and only lit with a somber blue light gleaming through the one window, it’s clear the technical elements have been executed masterfully.

As for the acting — which is equally notable — emerging star Sophia Lillis gives audiences a familiar face. Being someone who already impressed in the new “IT” movie franchise and was quite good in her Sundance film “Uncle Frank,” she cemented her place as one of the most promising young actresses working today. Her costar, Sam Leakey, provides great support too, and shines in his first film role. Furthermore, with a superficially sweet and poisonous core, Krige is stupendous as well.

“Gretel and Hansel” is a tense horror film that properly reimagines a tale as old and familiar as “Hansel and Gretel,” but Director Oz Perkins gives his own very dark stamp. This version opts for a slower, creepier take on the material and successfully rises to the occasion. 

It’s a film that general audiences, unfortunately, will likely be bored by, and this realization explains the January release date. This is a shame due to its implementation of taut and deeply thematic elements rather than relying on cheap jump scares. The first half is superior to the second, but throughout its runtime it’s a visually arresting atmospheric pleasure.

Title: Gretel and Hansel

Star Rating: Three and a half stars

Good:

  • Solid atmosphere.
  • Memorable visuals.
  • Great performances.

Bad:

  • Slow pacing.
  • Some plot elements aren’t completely explained.
  • Feels more appropriate for Halloween season.
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