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Film Review – Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013; Directed by Tommy Wirkola)

“Whatever you do, don’t eat the fucking candy,” warns Hansel (Jeremy Renner) as he and an ally approach a witch’s house of definite confectionary construction. The blunt, knowing action-hero one liner reflects the bluff and unpretentious tone of Norwegian genre filmmaker Tommy Wirkola’s bloodstained, distinctly dumb post-modern reimagining of the German folk tale “Hansel and Gretel”, recorded by the Brothers Grimm in the early 19th Century but of a much older medieval vintage. But the line is disingenuous at the same time. In Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Wirkola most certainly wants you to eat the candy. Heaping, sickening handfuls of it.

The film opens with a helicopter sweep over a dense forest from deep in the Teutonic gothic collective unconscious (although, considering the setting of Augsburg and its Bavarian countryside surroundings, it couldn’t accurately be called the famous Black Forest further to the west, and most of the forest scenes were filmed outside of Berlin). Wirkola (who writes as well as directs) proceeds to provide a visceral, campy action-horror retelling of the fairy tale as backstory prologue that sets out his tone for the project. The titular siblings, left in the forest by their harrassed father, are lured into a house made of candy, imprisoned by a hideous witch, and force-fed confections until they contrive a way to burn her to death in her own oven. Gruesome stuff, but beat-for-beat out of the Grimm’s text.

Wirkola’s conceptual conceit leaps off from the folkloric narrative: Hansel and Gretel are inculcated with a zealous hatred of witches by this childhood episode, in the midst of which they were also orphaned in mysterious circumstances. They grow into attractive and well-armed badasses who make it their unwavering mission to track down and eradicate practitioners of the black arts of witchcraft wherever they may be found. In two words, witch hunters. A wonderfully-rendered credits sequence chronicles their rise to local renown in this profession in the style of animated Germanic medieval woodcuts. If only the rest of Wirkola’s silly pulpfest was so aesthetically sophisticated.

The now-adult Hansel (Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) pursue their latest wiccan quarry in the Augsburg area at the invitation of its mayor (Rainer Bock), who is facing a percolating hysteria due to an outbreak of child abductions (printed faces of the missing kinders are strapped onto old-fashioned glass milk bottles in town, one of many droll throwaway gags). The mastermind of these crimes is a grand witch with the singularly unimposing meddling-aunt name of Muriel, who intends to sacrifice the children in a demonic Blood Sabbath ceremony that will make all witches in her extended coven immune to fire and thus basically invincible. Unless, of course, Hansel and Gretel can stop her. Famke Janssen plays Muriel and does not so much chew the scenery as blend it into smoothie form and chug it back by the gallon. In addition to Muriel and several other creatively nasty witches, the bounty-hunting sibling team is opposed by Augsburg’s antagonistic martinet of a sheriff (Peter Stormare, the Brando of B-movie Eurotrash bad guys) and aided by a boyish superfan of their work (Thomas Mann), a good witch who is Hansel’s love interest (Pihla Viitala), and an empathetic troll straining against the witches’ yoke of enslavement (performed by Derek Mears and voiced by Robin Atkin Downes).

If the dialogue, plotting, and characterization of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters can be clumsy and superficial, Wirkola still erects sufficient foundation to support and sustain his delirious, gory, stylish action sequences. Mostly taking place in European forests and wooden village structures, these enervating scenes are very clearly the whole point of the exercise and demonstrate an enthusiastic admiration of the energetic gore of the early splatter comedies of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. Hansel and Gretel have access to a travelling arsenal of fancifully-designed anachronistic firearms which they use to entertainingly messy effect on their many foes. The design and look in general is quite strong, evoking along with the setting, source material, and opening title design a gnarled, clockwork German steampunk (the German word for which is “wildwestwelt”, once again proving that everything is better in the original German) that has a certain aesthetic continuity.

Some credit/blame ought to be given to Wirkola for his awareness of the thorny historical implications of witch hunts as well as his disavowal of any responsibility to address it. In the first post-credits scene, Hansel and Gretel make their Augsburg debut by defusing a burning mob fomented by Stormare’s sheriff that threatens the life of Viitala’s white witch Mina. Hansel tells the crowd that it’s possible to tell black witches just by looking at them; the evil they embrace afflicts them with any number of imaginative deformities, and Mina has none of them. Therefore, no witch is she, and no need to burn her at the stake.

Unlike Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a similar quasi-historical pulp-horror mash-up which offered both intentional and unintentional commentary on the cultural memory of the institution of American slavery, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters makes no effort to consider the brutal conformism and ugly misogyny that underscored the superstitious European witch hysteria of the Early Modern era. Wirkola acknowledges those implications and puts them purposely aside without overt judgment, steadily aware that his lurid popcorn genre movie has no capacity to properly address and critique the violent discrimination of this particularly dark chapter in social history. He signals that he knows what witch hunts really were but labours under no illusions concerning the ability of his wacky blood-spurting actionfest to explore the issues they present with necessary breadth. Wirkola’s witches have a Manichean dimension but nothing more; they are either good or (more frequently) bad, but it isn’t hard at all to tell the difference.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters loses something with this choice, as reasonable as it is. But as a frothy, paint-the-burg-red sugar-blast, it’s a fine enough time. Like Hansel, however, whose candy-gorging torture at the hands of that witch in his youth has left him with diabetes and in need of insulin boosts, audiences may need a re-energizing injection of stiff medicine after enduring Wirkola’s rich but queasy genre confection.

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