If nothing else, Gretel & Hansel does one thing for which I am entirely grateful. Despite being a 21st Century Re-imagining™ of a classic folk tale, and despite having clearly spared a few thoughts as to how it might re-orient the material of that folk tale to connect with contemporary social issues, it doesn't try to humanise or soften or domesticate its primally terrifying villain. This is still a story about a witch who eats children, does so because she is motivated by her allegiance with the forces of evil, and whose motivations, however explicable, are so warped and perverted that we could hardly ever think of sympathising with them. And maybe it's giving a film too much credit to let a bad guy be a bad guy, but I've suffered through too many sad, sexy Draculas to take this kind of thing for granted.

The film is the biggest film to date by director Osgood Perkins, of the moody little indie-horror pictures The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015) and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016), and he's held onto that vibe in making the transition to studio filmmaking (the most minor of studios, to be sure, the resurrected husk of the old Orion Pictures, but still). It's very much part of the A24 art horror brand, with A24 nowhere in sight: specifically, it's a film that couldn't possibly exist without Robert Egger's The Witch having cleared a path for it. Not that it steals particularly much from The Witch - definitely not that it's anywhere close to as good as The Witch - but they have a similar feeling of stepping into a moral universe not our own and finding unfathomable evil hanging out in the woods, waiting to do ill things in the world, depicted through cinematography that constantly indulges in rich black shadows and lovingly hand-hewn production design that makes it feel like a primitive form of living has been waiting there all along for a film crew to stumble across it.

That atmosphere is far and away the best thing about the film; not quite the only good thing, though I was tempted at first to put that. The thing is, as the grimdark version of a fairy tale that was already fairly grim (and fairly Grimm, ahaha, please kill me), Gretel & Hansel has to go to some frankly ludicrous ends to make sure we Get It, It being the wretched viciousness of the world. There are ways of making this work, of course, but in practice, it just feels a little bit overdone and silly, like some teenage nihilist trying to impress upon us their don't-give-a-shit attitude, man. Writer Rob Hayes (making this the first Perkins film without a Perkins screenplay) makes a smart choice to show how the witch's treatment of the two titular characters is just an extension of the cruelty and exploitation that already exists in human interactions, but this comes at the expense of making every single thing that faces siblings Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Samuel Leakey) so utterly depraved that it becomes a bit numbing, pretty fast. So the main narrative opens with Gretel (made substantial older than her brother, in this re-telling) trudging off to help her dirt-poor family by taking a job in a rich man's home, and then recoiling when it turns out the "housekeeping" position is much likelier to be a "sex slave" position; she returns home to find her mother mooning about in a psychopathic haze, having gone literally axe crazy. Off the two run, where they meet a neutral hunter (Charles Babalola), who gives them angry, hostile advice and resentfully feeds them and shelters them, right before informing Gretel that the woodsmen he's sending her to find will almost certainly rape her and enslave Hansel, but it's presumably better than starving to death. And this is the nicest person they meet.

Eventually, they arrive at a cabin - not one made of candy, alas, though it does seem to be constructed in some peculiar way not of human traditions, where an old woman (Alice Krige) offers them fancy, delicious banquets in exchange for limited housework. From here, the story goes where it ought to, although of course in a particularly vicious and bleak way (the film shows a whole lot of dismembered body parts and entrails for a PG-13 release). And it's also right at this point that it actually becomes good for a bit. The tour of human wickedness that makes up the first act is frankly just tiresome, and clumsily expressed: this is the kind of movie that had narration tacked on, presumably as a studio note to clarify things, but it's so wobbily that it ends up being less clear what's happening than if we just saw the two siblings running from one dark space to the next. It certainly doesn't help even a little bit that there are actually two narrators: Krige, who opens the film with a legend about an evil haunted girl, and Lillis, who serves as Gretel's... diary? It's not clear at all, and it completely ruins what feels like it ought to have been a nice bookending bit of narration at the film's finale, which loses all of its impact as a result of being diluted.

But anyway, I was starting to say nice things. Once Gretel and Hansel find the witch's house, the film improves significantly. The fact that it gets to slow down and soak in the atmosphere is a huge part of this, particularly given that the witch's house is the single best part of Jeremy Reed's extremely impressive production design, feeling both homey and like a corrupt, diseased simulation of hominess. Krige's performance is also a godsend for the film: Lillis is lost in between the old-timey vibe of the dialogue and the new-timey attitude the film seems to want her to adopt, and Perkins (who I think, after three films, just isn't good with actors) isn't giving her any help, so it keeps feeling like the performance is jutting out in different directions, rather than cohering into anything. Having Krige come along to create such a strong anchor with such an obvious personality and desires, even as a villain, helps the film find its footing. And sure, she's basically just playing the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact again, but that was a very good performance, and it translates into a folkloric wicked witch with surprisingly little lost.

I would love to report that Gretel & Hansel turns into a bonafide great horror movie after that rocky opening, and it doesn't, really. There are very few actual plot points: Gretel (who has nascent witch powers of her own) thinks something bad is going on, the witch says something mildly taunting, Gretel has a nightmare vision, rinse, repeat. It's an extremely redundant plot, which makes sense if we remind ourselves that this is a fairy tale adaptation, but it becomes extremely dreary to watch it in a movie that, at only 87 minutes long, still feels padded and bloated. And even with so much time spent readying us for the ending, the movie still seems to just suddenly happen upon it; it's not really set up, Gretel doesn't really have to learn anything, it's just one big final setpiece, followed by an extremely bizarre and unsatisfying denouement, and then we're out. Still, the horror fan must have learned by 2020 that sometimes horror movies have miserable crash-landings right at the end, and allowances must be made for whatever strengths they can offer otherwise. In Gretel & Hansel's case, the thick, woodsy production design, the very unsettling fairy tale unreality, and Krige's terrific performance are pretty gratifying allowances indeed, though they're not enough to make this more then exceptionally good for a January genre film.