There’s a scene early on in the new film “Gretel & Hansel” when the two title characters accidentally scarf down psychedelic mushrooms in a forest and it produces one very strong feeling in the audience: jealousy.
Oh, if only we could all also be high for the rest of this. If only there was something that could make bearable another hour or so of this art-film horror. Forget the popcorn, just give us ‘shrooms, man.
“Gretel & Hansel” is as visually arresting as it is tedious, a 90-minute movie that really should have been a 3-minute music video for Marilyn Manson or Ozzy Osbourne. It’s in the horror genre only loosely. It’s more eerie, if that’s a genre. Actually, it’s like dread for 90 minutes. It’s dreadful.
The Brothers Grimm should really be outraged that their simple story about child abuse, malnutrition, cannibalism and witchcraft has been so twisted. Rob Hayes’ script centers on Gretel — hence the title’s name swap — and turns her into woke, coming-of-age super-heroine who outsmarts a witch. Why this dusty, nineteenth century ditty needed to be refashioned this way is unclear. What’s next? Will “The Three Little Pigs” soon be resurrected to become vigilante slayers of corporate greed? Pigs versus pork?
Sophia Lillis, who made her mark in “It,” plays 16-year-old Gretel, while newcomer Sam Leakey stars as her 8-year-old brother. Boosting Gretel’s age puts her on the cusp of womanhood and gives her dominion over her younger brother. She soon realizes that — gasp! — she has powers herself. “Women often know things they’re not supposed to,” the witch tells her. (If that was true, poor Lillis wouldn’t have wasted her considerable talent in this dreck.)
The original tale is about starving siblings who come across a house made of bread and cake — a lure built by a wicked witch who wants to cook and eat them. She is outsmarted and the kids get home safely. The moral: Strangers suck and don’t get off the path.
This retelling seems to be a lesson about corruption or maybe environmentalism — “nothing is given without something taken away,” Gretel intones — but it’s all muddled by heavily stylized sets and intended-to-be-creepy set-pieces that are visually fascinating but add up to little, all set to a knock-off “Stranger Things” soundtrack. The one lesson that the filmmakers didn’t tell us is that carbs are clearly the devil.
Director Osgood Perkins — son of Anthony — knows a well-framed shot when he sees it — mysterious cloaked figures in the distance with odd hats in misty forests — but connecting hundreds of arty images isn’t making a coherent film. Everyone is clearly very proud of turning the fairy tale’s yummy cottage into the film’s post-modern example of Deconstructivism architecture. Bravo! Congrats on the cool, asymmetrical roof but you forgot that the story makes no sense. Lots of candles and denuded Irish trees isn’t a plot.
Alice Krige plays the scary witch with an endless buffet and she’s perfectly cast, using her precise, quiet menace to excellent use, like when she ominously smells Hansel’s head. She tempts Gretel with eternal life — for a price. “There’s something wrong here,” Gretel wonders. “What hides behind this pleasantness?”
There’s also Charles Babalola as a fleeting nice guy who kills a demon with an arrow-driven head shot, an entire sequence that seems from another movie. But that’s the most real action in the film until the end when there are bloody corpses on autopsy tables, human entrails moving about and someone gets graphically burned alive. Why this is rated PG-13, we have no idea. Why it was even made in the first place is also beyond us. At the multiplex this weekend, kids, stay on the path.
“Gretel & Hansel,” an Orion Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for disturbing images/thematic content, and brief drug material. Running time: 87 minutes. Half a star out of four.