The young brother and sister team are hurried out of their house in the middle of the night by their father, while their mother’s whereabouts are unknown. Left by their father to hide in the woods (huh?), they stumble upon the candy and gingerbread house from the famous Grimm fairy tale. Throughout their ordeal with the cannibalistic witch that lives in the house, the kids speak barely a word to each other.
The makeup is ghoulish, the conflict is violent, and the entire scene has a hurried quality to it, as if the filmmaker knew it was a dud and wanted to speed past it as quickly as possible.
That’s Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters in a nutshell. It’s a gory, R-rated splatter-fest that uses its cartoonish violence as crutch rather than an anchor. It wants desperately to be on the same level as Sam Raimi’s slapstick horror Evil Dead trilogy, but it’s nowhere near as fun or clever.
All grown up, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton play Hansel and Gretel, two badass witch hunters who carry high-powered rifles and dress like rejects from The Matrix—in medieval Germany. That’s not the only anachronism in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Despite all of the Olde English scrolls and heralds that trumpet the famed duo’s accomplishments, once they arrive in the witch-plagued city of Augsberg, the suspicious townspeople speak with a mix of accents that are nowhere near their own plainly American ones. And like Ash from Army of Darkness, Hansel and Gretel have a penchant for modern phrases and profanity.
Even as I describe it in the paragraph above, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters still sounds like it could be kind of clever. It’s not. If ever there was a reason that screenwriters are hired to “punch up” a script, it’s for movies like this. The lack of dialogue was evident from the start, but I was hoping that it was a strategy to build tension, not because writer/director Tommy Wirkola (who directed the Nazi zombie splatter-fest Dead Snow) didn’t have anything clever to say.
It becomes clear pretty quickly however, that it was the latter. With nothing but bland exposition to get across, Renner and Arterton can’t breathe much life into their scenes together—and when Famke Janssen appears as the biggest, baddest witch, it doesn’t get much better. Perhaps Wirkola should have hired some of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 80s-era scribes to get the job done.
I’m all for winking action movies and creative uses of gore, but Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters just isn’t up to the task. Peter Stormare appears briefly as a local Sheriff who believes Hansel and Gretel are part of the problem and not the solution, but his attitude, like everyone else’s in the film, seems forced. I’m not saying the characters in Hansel and Gretel need to be “believable” (yes, I put quotes around that—there’s believable and then there’s “believable”) for the movie to work, but when everything that drives the plot is completely arbitrary, it’s hard to get excited about any of it.
What’s left, then, are the action set pieces. The fights are pretty hard to follow sometimes and consist mostly of people getting thrown into walls or furniture, but there’s a lot of messy witch deaths to enjoy, if that’s your thing. Although I expect that most horror fans will say it’s not messy or gory enough.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters exists in the uncomfortable middle ground somewhere between a formulaic mainstream action movie and a subversive horror comedy and ends up being neither. There’s all manner of exploding heads and dismembered body parts, but with nothing invested and a severe lack of personality, it’s not that much fun. The best thing about Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is that, at 88 minutes, it’s mercifully short.