HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCHHUNTERS. StarringJeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen,PihlaViitala, Peter Stomare. Written and directed by: Tommy Wirkola. Rated MA 15+ (Strong violence). 88 minutes.
Don’t be fooled by the title. What appears to be simply a revamp of the classic Grimm’s fairy tale is one of the nastiest films made for some time, and it is harmful and dangerous on a number of levels.
Set in a fantasy-land that is simultaneously medieval and contemporary, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters continues into the future where the two children, now grown-up have become bounty-hunters whose sole purpose and pleasure in life is the hunting down and extermination of witches.
Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) are impervious to the magical powers of witches (for reasons that are revealed later), and aided by pump-action shotguns and updated cross-bows, this super-human invulnerability makes them the first port of call for the harried mayor of the medieval-looking town of Augsburg, whose citizens for unknown reasons are losing more of their children than is usual to witches’ ovens and cauldrons.
The increased activity of the witches (who ride broomsticks at lightning speed and have grotesque faces) is due to the imminent rising of the Blood Moon, a rare celestial event which demands the sacrifice of 12 children (one for each month of the year) and the heart of a white witch, to make the black witches immune from fire. It is this, and the discovery of the truth about Hansel’s and Gretel’s parents which paves the way for a ‘final battle’ between Good and Evil, in the course of which it is impossible to discern who is more reprehensibly vicious, the ‘goodies’ or the ‘baddies’.
The German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were fascinated by folk tales, and in 1812-14 turned their collection into fairy stories which although sanitised, have continued to entrance and frighten children to this day: with good reason, as embedded in these tales are our most hidden and forbidden desires and fears, as psychoanalysts have long realised from Freud and Jung down to this day.
It is therefore not too fanciful to suggest that this cruel and gruesome adaptation of Hansel and Gretel by Norwegian writer/director Tommy Wirkola (Kill Buljo, Dead Snow), with its exploding witches and bloody trampling of heads, is designed to titillate exclusively violent sensibilities, and in the process make money for canny US and German studio producers who see in this product lucrative franchise possibilities through the appeal to our most basic instincts.
Described as a ‘horror-comedy’, Wirkola’s storyline is predictable, difficult to follow with its overreliance on special effects, and decidedly unfunny. How an actor such as Jeremy Renner (who received a Best Actor nomination for his role in The Hurt Locker) allowed himself to be seduced into taking part is a mystery.
Most regrettable, however, is the film’s appeal to the worst in right-wing national is. Good is powerless; only the emulation of all that is evil can save us. Guns are ‘blessed’ by ‘white magic’, becoming super-arms in the hands of the ‘goodies’ who exult in their power to exact punishment and complete annihilation upon their foes. Forgiveness is nowhere to be found, and redemption a dream. Even the empowerment of women in Hansel and Gretel-land means only one thing: their right to be as brutal as men.
Sadly the only ‘bright light’ offered to stunned audiences at the end of this confronting fantasy is the promise of more to come: watch out for Witch Hunters 2 and 3.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 7th February 2013.