By Jeffrey Sanzel
It is no secret that fairy tales inhabit a frightening universe. They are supernatural worlds of violence and betrayal where no one is safe. Often told as warnings to children — don’t stray from the path, don’t talk to strangers, etc. — they are rife with brutality. No story is truer to this dictum than Hansel and Gretel, which deals with famine, child abandonment, forced incarceration and cannibalism.
Fairy tales are an almost limitless source for darker viewpoints. Some are lurid or graphic; others rely more on what is unseen or, even better, what is within ourselves. Modern retellings of these stories have been seen in the thriller genre: in the Company of Wolves (Little Red Riding Hood), The Lure (The Little Mermaid), Snow White: A Tale of Terror, The Curse of Sleeping Beauty, Cadaverella as well as multiple anthologies.
Added to this list of tales of terror comes Gretel and Hansel. The creators of this film must have misheard, and, instead of a horror movie, they have created a horrible movie.
The plot draws only skeletally from the original source (may the Brothers Grimm rest uneasily if not fully in peace). Instead, it creates its own mythology about power and sacrifice. There might even be a message of female empowerment, but even this is muddled in a mess of ideas and images. The concept is there but the result lacks the depth to induce the fear and dread that underlies the story. While trying very hard to be “eerie,” the film falls into its own predictability and quickly feels repetitive.
There is plenty of dialogue in the movie; we know this because the characters are speaking (lots of) words. Most of them are meant to have deep meanings and allegorical value. But there is such a struggle with the quasi-stylized dialogue that it sounds like sayings from demonic fortune cookies or Hallmark cards from hell.
In addition, the film is stuffed with murky symbols to complement the art house lighting. The characters use the (lots of) words to talk about the (lots of) symbols. Unfortunately, even with many (many) words, these many (many) symbols create a wearying and eventually exhausting experience.
Not wishing to name names, the film’s threadbare screenplay is directed with a heavy hand and a pace leaden to the point where it seems like the action is going backward. The two lead actors clearly do their best: both Sophia Lillis (as a mature Gretel, coming to terms with her own powers) and Alice Krige (as the witch with a backstory) are as engaging as the film ever gets. But it is not enough to justify the pretentiousness. The climax — long in coming — is violent but lacks the catharsis of the original story.
Ultimately, it all feels dishonest. The film’s self-awareness becomes self-indulgent. It is a failure of style over substance. When compared with Gretel and Hansel, the Swarovski commercial that preceded the film had a greater claim to a cohesive and rewarding narrative.
While I did buy popcorn, I must confess that I snuck in a can of Diet Coke. Maybe sitting through this film was my punishment. And, perhaps, like with the original fairy tale, I have learned a lesson. In the future, I will stay out of these woods.
Rated PG-13, Gretel and Hansel is now playing in local theaters.