The fairy (not-quite-the-same) tale is a sub-genre of never ending popularity in Hollywood and one that can generate healthy box office returns. We’ve had Alice In Wonderland and Beastly. Last year gave us Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. In 2013 we have Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
You know how the story begins: after some questionable parenting leaves young Hansel and Gretel alone in the woods, the siblings come across a house made of gingerbread. No, it’s not the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man’s summer home. It belongs to a wicked witch who traps the kiddies and tries to eat them. But she soon learns something all babysitters know: never underestimate the capabilities of children fueled on sugar. Fast forward some years and that initial encounter has led Hansel and Gretel to become steam punky versions of Blade (basically). They travel town to town, hunting and killing witches for profit with a combination of crafty gadgets, dogged determination and snappy one-liners. Their latest mission brings them to a village where they suspect a coven of witches is stealing children for a very specific reason, a reason which will reveal secrets from their past.
“Candy coated carnage” reads the tagline of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. It’s a cute lure matched by a cute trailer featuring stylised gore, quips and enough action/adventure to appeal to a mass audience. But I had been warned, oh yes, I had prepared for the worst from a movie that so obviously delights in its kitschy premise. It’s bad, said one review. It’s Taken 2-level of terrible, said a colleague. As a fan of both horror and action I wondered what could be so awful about it. It’s from the creator of Dead Snow – a movie about Nazi zombies – which everybody seemed to love. Was it directed by McG? No. Was it scripted by the journalistic team at Esquire magazine? Nah-uh. Did Quentin Tarantino have a cameo in it? Hell naw. So – to put it indelicately – I couldn’t help wonder why everyone was jumping on this movie’s dick?
The answer still eludes me because, quite frankly, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was f***ing awesome. Originally coming up with the premise while studying film in Australia, it’s easy to see what producers Adam McKay and Will Ferrell saw in writer/director Tommy Wirkola’s pitch. The fairytale remix has been done before, but Wirkola puts his thing down, flips it and reverses it. Horror/comedy is a difficult combination to get right, but Hansel and Gretel nails it. From subtly inferring that Hansel is a diabetic thanks to his experience with the gingerbread witch to some flat out fantastic gore, Wirkola has you wincing and laughing in equal measure.
Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner are serviceable as the leads – pouting and frowning respectively – but it’s the action and their execution of it that really keeps the film hammering along. Hansel and Gretel are experienced witch hunters, but they still get the glucose beaten out of them on a regular basis, which is refreshing in a genre that can so often have 40 pound women in corsets annihilating foes willy nilly (*cough* Kate Beckinsale Van Helsing *cough* Underworld *cough cough*). They get bloodied, bruised and brutalised in their missions – a nice touch of realism in a completely unrealistic universe.
One of Hansel and Gretel’s greatest strengths are the effects, namely the creature effects. Famke Janssen plays the lead witch and at first her ‘evil side’ looks no more than a cross between Samara from The Ring and that chick from Evanescence. Yet as more species are introduced, the cooler and creepier the effects get. Horror fans can recognise one of their own and it’s clear the filmmakers not only love the genre, but love movies in general. By the finale the creatures feel like a homage to a mish-mash of flicks. There’s a smidge of Silent Hill, a shout out to Lord Of The Rings, a dash of Thirteen Ghosts, a Pan’s Labyrinth mimic and even a *wink* to The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad. Throw in Alti Orvarsson’s haunting score (overseen seen by Hans ‘BRAAAMMM’ Zimmer) and you have some darn affecting, erm, effects.
A terrible film? Witch please. Hansel and Gretel is an adult pleasure not afraid of swearing, splatter and schlock – all lovely ‘S’ words. Unlike a house made of gingerbread, don’t feel guilty for consuming this and liking it. A lot.
Note: Worth a look is Wirkola’s brilliant and much-hyped Kill Bill parody Kill Buljo, which can be found here.
Maria Lewis – follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz