Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

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I didn’t see it in IMAX or 3D, but I liked this poster better.

Hey guys, remember the crushing disappointment that was Van Helsing? Tommy Wirkola sure does, and he’s managed to find the exact combination of gore, practical effects, asskicking, and harsh language to actually make that formula work. The result is the ridiculous-sounding (and genuinely ridiculous) Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which seems to be turning viewers’ (understandably) low expectations into surprised goodwill, at least among the people I’ve been reading, though it’s still got a 13% at Rotten Tomatoes, so maybe the world at large hasn’t yet caught on.

When I first heard about Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, I assumed (perhaps rightly) that it was part of the “monster lit” fad that has previously produced gems like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and about a million trashy novels, chuckled cynically, figured I would see it because at this point I’d watch Jeremy Renner take out his garbage, and then moved on. But when the trailer came out and I started hearing early positive buzz from places I trusted, I got a little more excited. I’d heard good stuff about Tommy Wirkola’s debut film Dead Snow (though I still haven’t seen it) and the trailer looked like exactly what I’d want a movie about monster hunters to be: fun. Also, it was rated R, which was a nice change of pace in the world where seemingly every big popcorn movie nets a bloodless PG13, no matter how many beheadings actually take place in it. Finally, I think the lore of witches is a good, largely untapped source for weird, inhuman monsters, and we don’t get to see that exploited enough, especially in movies, where witches tend to be budget-friendly humans, be they insidious cults or misunderstood mystics.

And my (tempered) enthusiasm proved not to be misplaced. Now, don’t get the wrong impression from this. Hansel & Gretel is schlock. How could it be anything else? But it’s effective schlock, and a blast to watch. Jeremy Renner’s Hansel and Gemma Arterton’s Gretel are a foul-mouthed pair of walking anachronisms who seem like they strode in (in slow motion, of course) from a different movie, armed with all manner of ridiculous weapons like double-crossbows, gatling guns, folding rifles, and a low-tech variant on a taser, to name just a few. They’re badasses, and the movie lets us know it immediately, and repeatedly. I’m used to Jeremy Renner being the best thing in whatever movie I see him in, but here Arterton at least meets if not exceeds him, and both of them are a blast to watch. (Renner provides the opening narration, but pretty much the first words we hear out of Arterton’s mouth are her calling the villagers a bunch of “fucking hillbillies.” That’ll give you an idea.)

The movie absolutely revels in its R rating, dropping f-bombs and body parts left and right. There’s even a brief bit of nudity. The kills are all very gooey, in grand splatter film tradition, and it’s surprisingly satisfying to see such over-the-top bloodshed in a big popcorn movie like this. (The consensus over at Rotten Tomatoes calls it “alternately bloody and silly,” as though that’s a bad thing, and as though those two things can’t be synonymous.)

While Hansel and Gretel and their goofy arsenal are straight out of a cranked-to-eleven Van Helsing, the rest of the movie has a Sam Raimi-ish vibe, especially in the witches themselves, who are nicely inhuman, particularly toward the end when we get to see a massive sabbath of witches from all over the world, who are all kinds of crazy. I’m only sad that we don’t get to see them longer (probably due to budgetary constraints). There’s also a troll, in case a bunch of witches aren’t enough monster for you. And a supporting cast that includes Peter Stormare as a meddling sheriff and Famke Janssen as the head bad witch. If you’re not sold yet, you probably shouldn’t see this movie.

Hopefully I’m not over-hyping this thing. It’s not a perfect movie. It’s not even a perfect trashy movie. It’s too sloppy, and too formulaic, and there’s not enough of a singular vision attached to it to make it really shine. (The aesthetics and the music, for example, are very Raimi, but Raimi’s command of camera angles and timing is lacking.) But it’s a lot of gory, monster-killing fun, and better than a movie called Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has any right to be.

I saw this in 2D because the last three movies I saw were in 3D, and I was getting tired of it. It seemed like it might be fun in 3D, though, in the “lots of goofy crap flying out of the screen at you” kind of way. I also saw it at the Alamo, and, as usual, one of the best parts was the themed pre-show stuff they were running, including a terrible-looking trailer for the actually really great Hammer film The Witches, under its alternate title The Devil’s Own, which totally made me think of Gemma Files and her recent column about that movie.

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