Hollywood is really nothing more than a giant game of incestuous grab ass. Every time an exec at one of the major studios has a moderately interesting brain fart, it leaks out and the rest of the industry scrambles to catch up. I think no trend illustrates that point better than the recent spate of fairy tale based movies Hollywood has begun churning out in the wake of Warner Bros’ take on Little Red Riding Hood and Universal’s darker take on Snow White. Before this trend exhausts itself, I’m sure we’ll see gritty reboots of Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Pinocchio. This weekend, however, we get Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, writer/director Tommy Wirkola’s attempt to splice The Brothers Grimm with Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness.
I can almost understand why Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters may have looked good on paper. The tale of Hansel and Gretel—wherein a boy and a girl are lured into a candy coated house, are imprisoned by a nasty crone, and wreak vengeance on the monster by burning her alive—is one of the darkest of fairy tales. If you’re committed to jumping on this fairy tale bandwagon like the rest of the Hollywood lemmings, then Hansel and Gretel is the obvious place to start. And the crew was interesting; here you had the demented filmmaker behind the cult classic Dead Snow teaming up with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton to tell the tale.
This particular telling opens with an R-rated take on the classic story. All of the elements are there. Then the story jumps forward twenty years and we’re introduced to a Hansel and Gretel who have spent their lives professionally hunting witches. They breeze into an isolated community at the behest of the town mayor and offer their services despite the protests of the local sheriff (another satisfyingly scummy performance from Peter Stormare). It turns out that the village children are being kidnapped by a sort of super witch named Muriel (Famke Janssen). Muriel plots to offer the children up as part of a ritual sacrifice that will make her immune to fire, the apparent bane of all witches. Hansel and Gretel, who carry around steam punk inspired firearms and dress as if they’ve just plugged back into the Matrix, have different plans.
As the story progresses, the sibling witch hunters scour the countryside, tearing witches apart. The witches they come across are no pushovers, either; they’re as strong and agile as any Hollywood monster. We get to see Hansel and Gretel mutilate nasty hags with cracked faces and blackened teeth, and we also get to see witches maim and destroy slack-jawed peasants. Much of the movie is full of the blood spatter that’s served up in campy horror movies.
What almost makes Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters work is the casting of Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton in the leading roles. I’m fond of both actors for pretty much the same reasons. Neither Renner nor Arterton are classically attractive; they’re not cut from the same cloth as Brad Pitt or Charlize Theron. Paired up, Renner and Arterton look like the couple next door, and yet they share an abundance of talent and charisma. Renner’s one of the better leading men working in Hollywood today, and while British Gemma Arterton hasn’t really made the leap to Hollywood, she’s one of the more interesting young actresses laboring across the pond.
And best of all, both actors get that they’re starring in a movie called Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. They understand the premise is utterly ridiculous, and they coast by on their innate charisma. Here, Renner’s a chainsaw and a couple of well placed one-liners away from entering Bruce Campbell territory. The fact that neither lead takes the material too seriously keeps it from becoming mind numbingly awful.
It’s a shame that writer/director Tommy Wirkola couldn’t be in sync with his leads. The biggest problem with Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is that it’s too polished to be a complete camp fest and the premise is too fucking stupid for it to be a legitimately good movie in its own right. Wirkola, however, wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Just when the movie looks like it’s going to be a big dose of campy fun, it starts to take itself surprisingly seriously. This results in an almost indescribable awkwardness.
The movie suffers from the same faults as Dead Snow, Wirkola’s other horror comedy. That movie followed a group of twenty-somethings as they battled Nazi zombies during a botched ski trip. The premise alone was also intriguing in a hammy way, but the execution was off. It ended up being an exercise in pure, ham-fisted excess.
After Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, I’m not sure if Wirkola—a native of Norway—is actually a tone deaf filmmaker or if he’s actually brilliant and there’s just a cultural divide separating him from any hope of obtaining an American audience. Regardless, this movie never had a chance of being legitimately good, and it unfortunately never crosses over into the territory of so-bad-it’s-good. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is just mediocre.