There has always been a cruel undercurrent to the timeless fables of the Brothers Grimm. In the original version of Snow White, it was her real mother who sought to have the princess killed. The medieval folk lore of The Little Red Riding Hood had the poor girl unwittingly eat the flesh of her grandmother. So it comes as no surprise that Hansel and Gretel, already one of the darker stories in the Grimms’ repertoire, would be a perfect fit for a horror adaptation.
Yim Phil-sung’s fantastical re-interpretation of the classic tale opens upon a young man, Eun-soo, who is driving along a treacherous mountainous road. An accident ensues, and the wounded Eun-soo finds himself in a dense forest, only to be revived by a girl in a red hood. She leads him to her house, named the “House of Happy Children”, where she lives with her brother, sister, and parents. But as Eun-soo seeks to connect back with the real world, he finds that the family is not what they seem at all….
While moments of actual terror are present, the film manages to disturb us in ways that we might not have expected. Heavy themes such as child abuse and the meaning of parenthood are what linger in our minds, and to that end the filmmaker has succeeded in unnerving us by using deeper psychological underpinnings.
The actors are uniformly excellent, especially the three children, who exude as much charm as they do malevolence. But possibly the most significant character here is the production design. The gorgeous art direction evokes the palette of children’s storybooks, from the detailed artwork of the hallway wallpaper to the forest that seems to come alive. And though not made of gingerbread, the house itself is a contrast in colours and emotions of dread.
By provoking in us our childhood fears, Hansel And Gretel is perhaps the closest adaptation yet to express the emotional angst, the fear of abandonment, and the sexual subtext in the Brothers Grimm’s works. And to think that these stories are read as bedtime stories to children all around the world…