Movies like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters are why I’m often leery of the star system. This film’s messy. The performances are terrible to middling, the script’s underwritten and Tommy Wirkola’s (Dead Snow) direction doesn’t feel as present as it should.
Funny thing, I sort of loved it.
Hansel & Gretel is the sort of high-caloric B-movie cheese that’s best enjoyed slathered across a greasy burger. If you need a legitimately great, high-octane action film of this ilk, watch Blade II. But sometimes it’s nice to catch a flick where Peter Stormare’s juicy head gets crushed by the foot of a friendly Derek Mears-powered troll puppet named Edward. It’s the sort of gory goodness you usually only find on old VHS or, god forbid, Betamax.
This is a rental; a beautiful, glorious rental with cheesy acting giving way to cheesy dialogue – it’s B-DTV on a budget with practical effects artists once again afforded an opportunity to give us creatures that go bump in the night. A movie where characters spend the entire film caked in gruesome make-up, blood capsules and contacts. It’s the kind of effort that makes me long for a thumb through my Fangoria back issues – a work that would’ve been right at home with a Tales from the Crypt moniker slapped across it.
The concept of the timeworn Grimm Brothers fairytale is actually ripe for the good old schlock treatment. The film surmises that Hansel (Renner) and sister Gretel (Arterton), developing a taste for the witch killin’ at a young age, resolved to just keep on going after the fairytale ended. The film opens with its version of the classic story before catching up with the characters as adults and well-traveled witch hunters. The mayor of German town Augsburg hires the duo to snuff out a witch terrorizing their community. Along the way we make new friends, have a few laughs, shed a few tears and kill all the witches that ever witched. With a Gatling gun, no less.
With Gary Sanchez Productions (a company fronted by Will Ferrel & Adam Mckay, exec. producers here) behind this, I have to believe the lax approach intentional. Accents are all over the place, you almost doubt Renner and Arterton have ever spoken to an actual German, as any effort to adopt German culture was abandoned after they looked at the set design and must’ve said “Good enough.”
Let’s start with the bad: Jeremy Renner spends the entire film looking suspicious the check’s going to clear. A different actor would’ve identified the campy script and battered the necessary level of haminess into the material, but Renner doesn’t engage. He’s capable of a wide range, but he miscalculates and puts out an “above this” air that permeates throughout. He’s a fed actor. Find someone who’s hungry and the film very well could have been elevated past what amounts to immensely fun dreck.
Gemma Arterton is a step above, capturing the tone of the film and putting on a show that’s cool, sexy and badass in all the right ways. She takes a newly exploded liver and kidneys to the face and passes it off as if this shit happens all the time. She’s not striving for a BAFTA here, but in the context of the film she gives the star turn it needs.
It’s Famke Janssen, in all her Xenia Onatopp glory, that delivers the closest thing to a great performance as Head Witch in Charge, Murial. There’s a lot being thrown at the actor; be it layer’s of make-up, elaborate garb, action sequences where she takes ungodly amounts of punishment, but it’s the kind of turn that’s made watchable by how much fun Janssen’s clearly having on screen.
It’s hard to not get behind a film as straightforward as H&G. There’s good guys having it out with bad guys to the tune of copious amounts of gore-splattering. A horror rompus that earns its R-rating, the film offers ample amounts of dismemberment, beheadings, burnings, and even a Return of the Jedi-esque broom-chase sequence that ends with a couple of witches divided into tiny sections.
The brick and mortar practical effects work is the heart of the film, amplified by some decent but by no means necessary 3D (in fact, the only reason to pay the 3D premium is a four-minute GI JOE: Retaliation preview that shows hella promise). A sparing use of CG, though still present and accounted for, is enough to make the fine craftsmanship of the effects team a focal point.
I look forward to revisiting this film come Halloween-time, as that’s where it genuinely belongs. This is a visit to those delightful haunted attractions that come with the season, a trek through your favorite costume or mask shop, a revisiting of the sort of schlock, violence and buffoonery that’s goodly and pure. Not good in the conventional sense, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is Saturday morning cartoons for the horror crowd.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Out of a Possible 5 Stars