The first great movie of 2020 has arrived and it’s a weird little sleeper from director Osgood Perkins. Based on the well-known 1812 fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, Sophia Lillis (so good as Beverly in IT) and Samuel Leakey (in his film debut) play the title roles, as the children lost in the woods who are taken in by an old woman (played by Alice Krige) whose incessant kindness hides an ulterior motive. 

Perkins’ film is scary and trippy, existing not in the past or present but in its own world. While the costumes suggest the early 20th century, Lillis gives a contemporary turn that differs with the old school cadence of her co-stars. Every shot, distinguished by clever mood lighting and character placement, has been framed with a painterly precision. The overall result is an unsettling and bleak vision that maintains its grip, thanks to two excellent lead performances and Perkins’ consistently wondrous visual touches. 

Krige’s career is fascinating. She burst onto the scene by playing the love interest in the Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire. Then, she became a genre favorite, playing the literally haunting beauty in Ghost Story, the incestuous vampire-like creature of Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers and, best of all, the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. Here, assuming the role of The Witch, Krige has a way with her dialogue, really digging into the lines and giving them a resonant gravity. This isn’t a remotely campy or hambone turn but a wisely considered, fully controlled and completely awesome performance. 

Lillis matches her, in a captivating turn that grounds the film. While the story closely follows the narrative blueprint of Grimm’s tale (with a few supernatural touches thrown in), the suspense is prolonged and sustained, as the cat and mouse game between Gretel and The Witch is engrossing. 

While the climactic showdown is fairly formulaic, the revelations in the final scene are striking and troubling. A few touches are too on-the-nose, like the needless pentagrams carved into trees (we get it already, this old lady is bad news!). The use of dual narrations effectively announces the contrasting perspectives on hand and helpfully brings to light Gretel’s inner struggles. 

The PG-13 rating is a joke – please don’t take your kids to see this. It’s gory and intense enough to generate nightmares in grown-ups, let alone kids who would find the story distressing on several levels. 

Visually, this is a feast that brings to mind cinema artists like Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch. Aside from the little-seen and wonderful Sigourney Weaver-led Snow White: A Tale of Terror, there hasn’t been anything quite like this before. This is an arthouse horror film, generous in shock value but smarter and richer than expected. It’s oddly a companion piece to Carrie, in that it explores a young woman’s coming of age, growing awareness of adults and the evil they are capable of and how to hone a newfound power within. 

Perkins is the son of the late, great Anthony Perkins, the iconic actor who played Norman Bates in the Psycho movies. His first two films, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House and The Blackcoat’s Daughter, are Netflix favorites. His latest is most likely to develop a strong, highly deserved cult following. The subtext of a young woman being forced to grow up in an evil world is what makes it intelligent but the film’s look (it was filmed in Ireland but appears other-worldly) and sound (the electronic score by French pop musician Rob followed me out of the theater) will grab those in search in something offbeat. 

This bizarre gem from the newly resuscitated Orion Pictures has effective but scant use of CGI, only a couple of jump scares, and elevates the horror by placing the audience into a strange, unfamiliar world. For adventurous filmgoers, this is a refreshing take on an oft-told tale. On top of the talent on hand and the memorable optics it offers, Gretel and Hansel left me feeling creeped out, which is more than I can say of last week’s The Turning.

Three Stars

Rated PG-13/87 Min.

Image courtesy IMDB

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