It's like a magician's trick from hell. In Gretel & Hansel, a dark retelling of the classic Grimm fairy tale from director Osgood Perkins, the villainous, cannibalistic witch — played by Alice Krige — chews a piece of sausage and then unravels a long strand of a young girl's hair from her mouth. There's even a bow tied on the end.
The message is clear: This is not the story you remember.
Perkins and Krige recently told Inverse how the sausage was made.
"This was the moment in the movie where the witch had put Gretel through the paces and shown her everything," Perkins tells Inverse, "but the witch still wants to be the more powerful of the two of them. The idea was for her to demonstrate her power. 'Let's not forget who's in charge here. You're young, but I'm the grandmaster. I can do whatever the fuck I want.' A reminder to not forget who's in charge."
In theaters Friday, Gretel & Hansel faithfully adapts the original story from the Brothers Grimm, with some crucial changes. No longer twins, Gretel is now 16-years-old (played by Sophia Lillis) and must look after her younger brother Hansel (Sam Leakey). After traversing through the woods hoping to find a safe foster home, the two fall into the clutches of a predatory witch, who hopes to fatten them up good before she eats them.
With bone-chilling occult imagery, as if created by the unholy child of H.P. Lovecraft and Ghost music videos, Gretel & Hansel is a bold, dark reinvention of your childhood bookshelf. So much of that reinvention came from a new backstory imagined for the witch, the model for every evil witch from Disney to Dark Souls.
“Her only way to deal is to eat other children.” — Alice Krige
The witch was a character Perkins hoped to "push past the image" ingrained in popular culture.
"What kind of person ends up in a horrible existence she lives?" he says. "This unending cycle of luring children, murdering children, eating children — Where does that come from? We tried to find a way to say, if we eat our feelings, what are hers? She’s not eating for eating’s sake. She’s eating her feelings. As soon as you start to dig in and give a person a backstory, a brilliant actor like Alice Krige will show you all of that."
To reveal the witch's backstory, including even her name, would reveal too much of the movie (which is sort of shocking when we're talking about a fairy tale). But Krige tells Inverse that Perkins' interpretation "struck a very deep chord with me."
"I know that sounds insane," the veteran actress says, "but as an actor, what I do is empathize with that. Where the only place to cope, her only way to deal is to eat other children."
“I was very anxious about going to the dark.” — Alice Krige
In taking on the witch, Krige feared she'd have to return to an emotionally dark place she had to inhabit before. In 2006, Krige appeared in the movie Silent Hill, an adaptation of the popular Japanese horror video games. Krige played Christabella, a priestess who (coincidentally) hunted witches to burn them. The role haunted Krige for years.
"She was so mad and so dark. I didn't quite grasp how dark she would be when I accepted the role," Krige says. "But once you're committed, you've gotta go there. Before I was actually offered Gretel & Hansel, I was very anxious about going to the dark I had to go for Christabella."
It was only through collaboration with the "compassionate" Perkins that "totally wiped out my fear."
"I trusted he would illuminate the darkness," Krige says. "Never in a moment did Oz judge. She is allowed to be an addict but also feel grief and shame. Which is very interesting as an actor, because you have a human being full of conflicting impulses and is wrestling with it. That is the human condition. We're all in that space. So you got to the dark place, you take every ounce of compassion and empathy you have with you."
"So yeah," she adds. "She eats children."
Which is how we get to the hair-in-the-sausage. Filmed entirely on camera with practical effects, the scene was accomplished as a oner after multiple takes. Perkins says the strand of hair and the child's bow were kept folded "in a breakable plastic bag" that Krige kept in her mouth, placed underneath her tongue. "God knows how they fit all that in there," Perkins says. After chewing the sausage meat, Krige simply reached into her mouth and let the horror flow from her mouth. "It was all one continuous take. There was no cutting there. When you accomplish something like that with no cutting, it's a good day."
"It's really visceral, isn't it?" Krige says, laughing. "When Oz said to me, 'This is what we're gonna do here,' I just did it. There was nothing to do but to do it. I had a mouthful of hair, but I had a gut feeling what Oz was looking for. I knew it would be enormously disturbing and carry a kind of weight that words just wouldn't give you. It was weird and wild enough to tell its own story."
Gretel & Hansel opens in theaters on January 31.