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After the dismal double whammy of Underwater and The Turning, 2020 didn’t appear to be shaping up as a banner year for horror and science-fiction. With Gretel & Hansel, the genre regains some respectability. The film is not entirely successful, but it’s evident that screenwriter Rob Hayes and particularly director Osgood Perkins are in there, swinging away.

That the film is titled Gretel & Hansel rather than the usual Hansel & Gretel is ostensible because Gretel is the dominant character (which she is), but it’s conceivable that the filmmakers wanted to avoid confusion with the ludicrous Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013).

Set in a plague-ravaged Medieval landscape, the story adheres to the basic tenets laid down by the Brothers Grimm: Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and younger brother Hansel (newcomer Sammy Leakey) have been banished from home and left to fend for themselves in a forest less enchanted than foreboding.

Desperately hungry and lost, they come across the dwelling of Holda (Alice Krige), she of the blackened fingertips and ripe Irish brogue, who lays out a sumptuous banquet for them. To repay the favor, Gretel and Hansel offer to do chores before continuing their journey. Naturally, things don’t quite work out the way they intended.

Lillis, who’s earned her “scream queen” stripes with It (2018) and It: Chapter Two (2019), holds her own against genre veteran Krige, fondly remembered as the lethal Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and the sensuous specter in Ghost Story (1981), and their scenes together are assured and well-played.

As portrayed here, both characters have precognitive and psychic abilities, thereby sharing a link that is never clearly defined. Indeed, a sense of vagueness permeates the proceedings, and Gretel’s narration feels like it was tacked on at the last minute to add some clarity.

Director Perkins is the older son of the legendary Anthony Perkins, named after his actor grandfather. Late in his career, Anthony directed two features, Psycho III (1986) and Lucky Stiff (1988) and displayed a mordant sense of humor. Oz Perkins seems to have inherited this, and it adds a little snap to the oft-told tale. The prose is sometimes purple, but it’s only fitting, given the surroundings.

One aspect that is completely successful is the film’s atmosphere. Cinematographer Galo Olivares (only his second feature) and production designer Jeremy Reed are to be lauded for the evocative, even magical, imagery throughout, and the score by “Rob” (Robin Coudert) is also a major asset.

Collectively, Gretel & Hansel isn’t without its faults, but there are individual moments of brilliance that stand out in the memory, as well as some highly suggestive overtones that, alas, aren’t fully realized. Although the film is rated PG-13, all the better to attract younger audiences, it’s still pretty strong stuff, and definitely not for small children.

See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2020, Mark Burger.

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