The thing that bowls you over, straight off, about “Gretel & Hansel” is how beautiful the damned thing is.
Art director Christine McDonagh (TV’s “Into the Badlands”), production designer Jeremy Reed (“Hard Candy”) and lighting cinematographer Galo Olivares (“Roma”) have conjured up a stark fairytale-scape with glowing, supernatural red fog, stylized black witchwear (Leonie Prendergast did the costumes) and buildings that are Bauhaus meets Lovecraft’s “Necronomicon.”
At times, the eye candy nightmares and waking nightmares of this grim twist on the Grimm’s fairytale will make your jaw drop.
Casting the regal horror queen Alice Krige (“Ghost Story,” “Silent Hill,” Borg leader in “Star Trek”) is another coup. The florid dialogue of Rob Hayes takes on poetic undertones as the South African actress delivers lines of chilling menace or spooky empowerment in an Irish accent.
“Women often know things we’re not supposed to know,” she purrs to Gretel — the heroine of this version of the story. “I’d hate for you to start something you can’t stop.”
All that’s missing from this sinister exercise in creepy cuisine is, well, frights. “Gretel & Hansel” are wrapped in a chiller with no thrills, a thriller with few chills.
In a time of pestilence and famine, Gretel (Sophia Lillis of “It”) struggles to feed herself and her little brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey). But the options for a young woman in era are the grimmest thing she may confront. A pervy housekeeping job interview with “Milord,” cast out of a foodless house by their mad mother, even a chance rescue and meal from The Hunter (Charles Babalola) leaves her suspicious.
“Is it safe to trust someone who arrives just when you need them?” she narrates.
Deep into the forest, what is she to make of that black A-frame with the table set for a perpetual banquet, sweets and meats and fresh milk?
“Nothing is given without something else being taken away,” she counsels her little brother.
The kindly, black-fingered crone who lives there seems warmed by their presence. That scent of cakes baking that lured them there? Nothing suspicious about that. Not at all.
“Guests? I’d rather have ROACHES!”
But she keeps busy stuffing Hansel and taking a motherly teaching folkways/witchy ways tack with Gretel, “a girl with action in her power.”
Actor turned director Osgood “Oz” Perkins (“The Blackcoat’s Daughter”) keeps the period piece detail even as the design takes on modernist gigantic sound-stage dimensions.
But all this beauty and detail serves a heavily-narrated, dramatically-thin war of the wills tale, where we and Gretel figure out that there’s no such thing as a free dessert cart.
The framing prologue, about “the most perfect little girl” is colorful but has such a tenuous connection to the main story as to be pointless.
Krige, with her cadaverously unworldly eyes and Irish burr, never takes on the terrifying tone we keep waiting for.
Lillis never seems frightened, just curious.
And when the credits roll, we cast our eyes about the theater at all the other paying patrons casting their eyes around the theater, all of us wondering the same thing.
“Wait, that’s it?”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images/thematic content, and brief drug material
Credits: Directed by Oz Perkins, script by Rob Hayes. An Orion Pictures release.
Running time: 1:27