Unlike Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and the slew of hipsters attending midnight screenings of Troll 2 (1990), I don’t appreciate B-movies ironically. I genuinely love them, perceiving low-rent special effects, unconvincing sets, and wooden acting not as cause for celebration but as negligible distractions from the creative freedom inherent in pouring all of one’s heart and soul in a project about which nobody with money remotely cares. As such, when a high-budget, impressively cast piece of lunacy like Drive Angry (2011) or, more to the point, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters comes along, I often find myself the only critic on the World Wide Web liking it.
Whether you’ll embrace Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters depends on how you feel about its title, which sums up both the premise of the film and its absurd spirit. As laid down by the Brothers Grimm, the original fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel: Kids with Awful Parents, left the titular siblings triumphant over the carbonised carcass of a witch who’d lured them into her edible home to make human pot roast. Writer-director Tommy Wirkola takes the oddly lurid image to its most demented conclusion, allowing the children to grow up into jaded mercenaries who specialise in the occult (think 2004’s Van Helsing). “We learnt two things that day,” explains Hansel (Jeremy Renner), “One: don’t go into houses made out of candy. Two: if you’re going to kill a witch, set her ass on fire.”
Equipped with steam-punk firearms and the sort of gadgets you’d expect from a Wild Wild West (1999) sequel (not that you’d expect one), Hansel and his sister Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are presented as walking anachronisms, responding to every question, accusation, and threat in Ye Olde English by dropping F-bombs with a distinctly modern affectation. Gemma Arterton, born and raised in Kent, England, even goes so far as to fake an American accent in order to clash with her medieval environment, revealing every bit of goofiness in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters not as the product of laziness but as that of a wicked sense of humour.
Consider the scene in which the town sheriff (Peter Stomare) distributes milk carafes with drawings of missing children attached to them or the notion that Hansel contracted diabetes from the witch force-feeding him candy when he was a boy. Incidentally, I dig the latter’s tongue-in-cheek mannerisms, the way they reflect that of a clichéd Western hero, from the slight waddle whenever he walks to his insistence on resting every weapon he holds on one shoulder. In light of his prominence in recent action blockbusters, it’d be easy to forget Jeremy Renner cut his teeth in a number of comedies. Here he uses his charm and impeccable timing to play straight man to his own joke.
I also like Gretel an awful lot, owing in large part to Arterton sidestepping the common mistake among young starlets of confusing confidence with defiance. Despite her impractical bustier, the character comes across as a genuine scrapper rather than a Heavy Metal fantasy. It helps that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters provides no love interest to “conquer” our heroine and that her adversaries, whether they be witches or angry villagers, never sexualise her. Take, for example, the scene in which the sheriff’s posse captures her in the woods. Most Hollywood films would have at least one of the baddies threaten rape, but here they just beat the crap out of the woman as they would any other adversary, and she of course returns the favour. Am I sick to view this as progress?
It occurs to me that Hansel and Gretel take a lot more hits than they dish out in any given fight. Resisting the urge to portray them as infallible ass-kicking machines, Wirkola puts our heroes through the ringer every chance he gets, favouring suspense over adolescent wish fulfillment. As a result, every victory feels earned, even though we know nothing too dire could possibly befall Hansel and Gretel, who, at times, do seem a bit too cool for school as they blast their way through hordes of evil, misshapen Wiccan creatures.
Each witch, by the way, has got her own set of powers and digitally enhanced deformation. We get a snake witch, a spider witch, a Siamese twins witch… We even get a good witch at some point, though now I’m delving into spoiler territory. It’s kind of neat to see a postmodern exploitation flick use elaborate special effects to flesh out its universe rather than to punctuate its self-referential jokes with excess gore. You see, the humour in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters serves to make the fantasy more palatable, not the other way around. By the same token, it seems to me a true B-movie, no matter its budget, ought to trade in dreams, not irony.