HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS is a hoot. It begins like a much swearier and more violent Hammer horror film, and becomes an excessive tribute to EVIL DEAD-era Sam Raimi by the end. As a bonus the whole cast look like they’re having the time of their lives.
We all know the story – a brother and sister lost in the woods come across a house made out of sweets, inside they find a witch who they manage to trick and kill, narrowly escaping with their lives. Their tale picks up years later by which time they’ve become celebrity witch hunters for hire (played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) and face their greatest challenge yet in a witch (Famke Janssen) who seeks to overcome her kinds’ inherent weaknesses and fight back.
The special effects, creature designs and action sequences are hugely imaginative, and elevate the trashy premise far above what it could be. We saw hints of this in the Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s previous splattery thrill-ride DEAD SNOW – he’s a great visualist, and has a depraved sense of humour. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the final act involves Hansel and Gretel fighting a coven of witches with a variety of deformities and degrees of monstrous behaviour, a scene which allows Wirkola and his design team to really let rip with their creativity and unleash some creepily inventive looks for each of their witches.
It’s not particularly smart, in fact it’s pretty dumb, but that’s fine every now and then. You get precisely what you’d expect from a modern reimagining of a classic story – anachronisms, contemporary dialogue and attitudes and story embellishments aplenty, but Hansel & Gretel at least seems pretty self-aware of itself. It doesn’t shy away from the nastiness of the Grimm fairy tale, and even manages to throw in some mild commentary on celebrity culture (at least I think that was the intention). You don’t generally watch films like this for great screenwriting, and Tommy Wirkola in truth is much more talented behind the camera than behind a keyboard, but he has a wicked sense of humour, and raises a few laughs from often brutal slapstick beats and foul-mouthed retorts.
It’s Gemma Arterton who seems most at home in this territory, and her version of Gretal, far from a damsel in distress or playing second fiddle to her male sibling, is tough and brash, and entertainingly fond of solving arguments with a head-butt, and swearing like a sailor. Though it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, as the cast is international and dialects eclectic, but I’m not sure why the British Arterton chose to put on an American accent. Perhaps it was to better match her with her on-screen brother Jeremy Renner. Speaking of Renner, he refreshingly plays the more damaged of the siblings, stricken with diabetes and trust issues after his childhood experience with the witch, it’s mostly left to Gretal to be the strong one, the constant in Hansel’s life.
The supporting cast do what is asked of them and little more. Famke Janssen is a fittingly pantomimey villain (apparently with paying off her mortgage in mind), Peter Stormare slots effortlessly into his role as a slimy sheriff and Pihla Viitala thankfully is given a bit more to her character than simply being the love interest for Hansel.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t deliver on an emotional level. You might think a work of “trash” cinema can’t make an impact beyond being a guilty pleasure, but that’s not true. A prime example is HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN. Yes, it was about a homeless man on a vendetta with a firearm, but it packed a real human, soulful punch. Hansel & Gretal had the prime opportunity to capitalise on similar material, but it misses the mark in that regard. Whenever it looks like it’s going to offer more than depraved thrills and gore, it seems to lose interest.
As entertainment, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters delivers. It also offers inventive creature designs, a pair of memorable protagonists, gruesome deaths and exciting action. As the first part of a fun but shallow franchise, it’s a solid foundation. Maybe the next one might delve a bit more into what makes the siblings tick? Or maybe we’ll just get more blood, guts and cursing (magic and sweary). Either way, I’m in. SSP