By Pedro Schwarzenegger
The newest ongoing contributor to Movie Show Plus. Pedro Schwarzenegger is a true Northman. A savage man in a savage place and time. His taste in cinema? Savage. And yet he does all his writing on an iPhone, like some kind of candy-ass millennial. PedroSchwarzenegger@cinemabuse.com
In the famous words of Mugatu: “Hansel’s soooo hot right now.” Both Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and this week’s Gretel & Hansel are bastardized adaptations of the same classic fairy tale, both released in January. Hollywood’s trash trove month for movies deemed generally uncompetitive any other time of the year. Namely, because they universally score poorly in test screenings.
Which, in the case of Tommy Wirkola’s (Dead Snow, Dead Snow: Red vs Dead) Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, meant a righteous scalding by the press pool. The film still suffers a 15% blight on the Tomatometer to this day, (“It's an appalling, insulting and cynical mess from start to finish.” - The London Evening Standard) seven years after its release (the movie would go on to gross 226 million worldwide). Of course we could juxtapose that score against the movie’s Amazon star-rating average, which is honestly the single most accurate gauge for rentability and watchability. With nearly 5,000(!) reviews, Witch Hunters has nearly a perfect five star film score at the online mega-store. As if anyone cares what the paying customer thinks...
Meanwhile word on the street has it that Orion Pictures isn’t even screening Gretel & Hansel (opening Friday, January 31st) for the press, pre-release. Which is as dark an omen as you’ll find in any Grimm’s Fairy Tale. Very dark indeed. Welcome to January film aficionados. This is hexed ground we tread upon.
The best way to approach Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is exactly how you’d approach Randy Quaid if you stumbled upon him after sundown - with prudence, and as if it’s totally off its rocker. This is a mad, mad, motion picture.
After slaying the witch in the candied cottage when they were children, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and his sister, Gretel, (Gemma Arterton) nurse a perennial sweet tooth, are stricken with diabetes, (from all those goodies) and have a holy thirst for revenge against the female pagan species. In this fairy tale, witch hunting is a full contact sport. Try to ignore the incompatibility of phonographs, repeating shotguns, and martial arts training in medieval Europe - you’re only going to give yourself an aneurism. The tone here is gonzo, and practicality has as much a place in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters as bonfires do at a wicker furniture outlet.
As for the same-sex coven of witches in regards to the extreme violence employed to terminate them? Sure, this is a film where women - or some hella-ugly degradation thereof - get battered like cod cutlets - get slapped around, stomped on, crushed, chopped, gouged, gutted, hemicorporectomized, shot into pulp, strained through sieves, beheaded and burned alive. Much like the Deadites in the Evil Dead franchise, these satanic sultanas are pretty much sprinting squib-bags, remotely detonated in spectacles of superfluous splatter. Witch Hunters is a sort of saucier’s prep guide for pulverizing whole witches into witch-sauce. Set the stewpot to burn-bitch-burn, and let simmer for ninety-eight minutes. The resulting entree isn’t totally unfit for human consumption.
We could argue the case that, historically, the witch is a symbol for feminine empowerment. Hansel & Gretel makes a strong assertion that they’re simply malevolent monsters in need of, not understanding, but punishment and extermination. Besides, Gretel does a fine job of being any little girl’s role model. And since these witches use little girls as toothpicks, the choice between maiden and hell-whore should be an easy one for our daughters to make.
Though it is action-centric I doubt the term ‘action film’ fits Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. There’s an auspicious fetishization of violence in the picture. Most of it directed at women and children, which could explain the movie’s low marks. (I feel the need to point out these particular women are every bit the physical equal of any man in the movie) These showdown set-pieces between hunter and witch actually look like they left the stunt doubles hobbling afterward, suturing cuts and cold-compressing sprains. The violence is wildly gratuitous, but also has the courtesy of at least being inventive. Film sets splinter and collapse altogether under the weight of flying punches and bodies. If we tabulate the cost of what this destruction to the production lot looks like when projected onto the big screen, it looks considerable. Like MTV Pictures sunk a fortune into creating extensive property damage. The result is maniacally overbearing, and if we’re being honest, more than a little bit admirable. Tommy Wirkola does his best work choreographing brutality. Like the principle inheritor of Sam Raimi and Chuck Jones’s lurid trade, his approach may be cavalier, but his heart beats to create better, and more satisfying acts of extraordinary violence. In that respect Witch Hunters is a smashing (emphasis on smashing) success.
The film was produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. So the key financiers at least felt there was comedic potential with the material. Comedy/Horror is a difficult act to juggle, for every American Werewolf in London there’s at least fourteen Saturday the 14ths. The splatstick genre is notoriously tricky to negotiate. As it stands Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a silly film. More self deprecating slapstick than highbrow comedy. It never feels like a grift though, the material’s honestly good, or honestly bad, depending on your humors.
I guess the most pressing question is, is Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters a good movie? Does it defy its bottom-feeder Rotten Tomatoes indictment seven years after its release? As a film it’s about as subtle and sophisticated as an airbag test video. The blend of CG and practical effects is a tad off putting, especially when the practical effects (that troll tho) are so solid. I think the amount of good marks it’s received on Amazon.com are an indicator of some cult potential. Though we’ll see how that plays out in the future.
I quite like the movie. It’s a clever mix of gallows humor and gross-out gags. The fight and flight sequences feel dynamic, and as a comedy, you either have a sense of humor when it comes to offensive material or you don’t. I just happen to get the joke Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is telling. It’s cheeky, and in poor taste, but I couldn’t help but giggle a little. Call me a cheap date if you will, but I had fun with this one.
(CLICK HERE FOR PART II OF THIS TWO-PART ARTICLE).
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