GRETEL AND HANSEL. There is much to be mined in Western fairy tales but few are as adaptable to horror as Hansel and Gretel as set down by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, with the shunned children falling prey to a cannibalistic witch. In the end, Hansel's cleverness only goes so far and it's Gretel who must shove the witch into her own oven to burn as they escape to the sound of her howling. What better formative horror story for children? Reading the English translation as children, my brother and I, half raised on Japanese folk tales in which children appear as longed-for gifts, absorbed its shocking lessons: that hunger and poverty can break family bonds, adults are not to be trusted and nothing is free.
Director Osgood Perkins (yes, as in Anthony, his late father) delves into these warnings, telling the story, as the title indicates, with Gretel at its center. With The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015) and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016), he has carved out his own horror subgenre focusing on the eerie loneliness of girls and women, bereft after possession, haunting and death. In Gretel and Hansel, he delivers otherworldly dread and gorgeous/ghastly visuals to flesh out the fairy tale, but the pacing is slow and self-indulgent, and its resolution does not satisfy.
We begin with a story, though not that of the title characters. Instead, it's the tale they've grown up with, the story of the Beautiful Child, a little girl in a pink wool cap on whom I'd put my money in a fight against the twins from The Shining. Her desperate parents save her from illness in her infancy with the help of a faceless sorceress. Soon the girl manifests supernatural powers and a violent streak that leaves her family no choice but to abandon her in the woods, where she dwells alone, luring other children to their doom. It's a story that lingers in the mind of teenage Gretel (Sophia Lillis) as she makes her way, round-faced brother (Samuel Leakey) in tow, through autumn woods to see about a job as a maid. The employer, a grotesque old man, is mostly interested in her virginity so she leaves without work. Her mother, mad, grieving and starving, casts out the siblings, punctuating her order with the sudden swing of an ax. And so they set off, Gretel a stoic guardian undeterred by haunting visions of the Beautiful Child and the sorceress. After a kindly huntsman (Charles Babalola) comes briefly to their rescue, sharing food and sending them on a safer path, she wonders at her own unease at the sudden arrival of help when it's needed — how it feels like a trap. Soon they come upon a spooky A-frame (which I'm sure I've seen tucked way back in Sunny Brae) that, while not made of gingerbread, is packed with food. The old woman inside (Alice Krige), her fingers stained soot-black, welcomes them with a feast, though Gretel, ever distrustful of gifts, insists they work for room and board. As days pass, she teaches Gretel about herbs and the girl's nascent powers, how they will both sustain her and alienate her from the world of men. It's this hunger — to be valued and mentored — that temporarily tamps down Gretel's suspicions until her brother's peril awakens her.
Unfortunately, the steady dread Perkins so artfully creates grows plodding halfway through (unlike in the swiftly paced flashbacks) and the anachronisms and mismatched accents start to wear rather than intrigue. Still, Gretel and Hansel is packed with beautiful shots: the bare forest carpeted with golden leaves; the pale witch emerging from a pool of black liquid; a plume of red smoke from a stone house; and the insect-like silhouette of the sorceress. It also makes some interesting observations about the dizzying power of literal hunger, as well as ambition and emotional need, though it could have gone further into the last. The relationship between Gretel, her options narrowing as she enters womanhood, and the old woman who urges sacrifice to achieve her full potential is meaty stuff, but when they face off, it falls away. Emotional moments are flattened toward the end of the film and one wonders if Perkins' reliance on the numbed-out faces of young women isn't more habit than choice. If cutting attachments grants one power it has to come with heartbreak we can feel, not a tearless choice. Nothing, especially magic, comes for free. PG13. 87M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
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— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill