Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is hilariously awful
Bad movies are a guilty pleasure of mine (am lately obsessed with Miami Connection, a 1987 wonder-gem of a movie discovered on Ebay by Drafthouse Films—it has karate and friendship and motorcycle ninja gangs, what more could you want?), and I have an unofficial thesis on the different levels of bad that exist in filmmaking. To date I’ve identified four levels, although I suspect there may be five—I’m still compiling data (it’s my life’s work). The four (identified) levels are: Good-Bad, Bad-Bad, Hilariously Awful, and Money Grab. The most inexcusable of these levels is the Money Grab, which is when no one is making any effort at all to make a good movie for the sake of the movie but when it’s very clearly a product created solely to fleece the unsuspecting audience of their dollars (see also: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, still one of the most simply awful and worst-produced-on-every-level movies I’ve ever seen).
The other levels are more about whether or not the intent of the film is successfully communicated, if it meets its desired goals, and how competent is the filmmaking involved. Sometimes things look good on paper that end up not panning out on screen, but you can still enjoy it as a spectacle or piece of fluff. Good-Bad movies are B movies—you know it’s not good from a storytelling standpoint, but it’s well made enough, and fun enough, that you can look past narrative and/or poor acting flaws (see also: Road House, The Mummy). Bad-Bad movies are the ones that lack the fun factor of a pleasing B movie and are just joyless drudgery to sit through (Red Riding Hood). And then there’s Hilariously Awful, when the movie is the right combination of incompetent and insane, when it’s so bad you can’t believe what you’re looking at, but yet there’s a sense of wonder about it, a how-much-worse-can-this-get attitude that compels you to keep watching. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is hilariously awful.
It’s an indefensible movie that fails on nearly every level, but the staggering ineptness of writer/director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) is so mind-boggling that there’s pleasure to be had in seeing just how far into the ground he can drive the production (answer: really, really far). The basic plot sounds like it was cribbed from Highdeas.com—abandoned poppets Hansel and Gretel “many years” after their fateful trip into the woods and the house of candy that ended in murder and arson, have become famous witch hunters who kill witches until they’re dead.
I can see the pitch now. “Dude, it’s like, what if Hansel and Gretel grew up?” The many years later tag was originally supposed to be fifteen years later, but Jeremy Renner, though largely resistant to gravity to this point, simply cannot pass for twenty-something anymore, so we’re left to assume how long we think Hansel and Gretel have been at their professional witch hunting. Judging by how hard they get their asses kicked for the first two acts of the film, I’d say about three weeks.
The thing is, somewhere down deep in Hansel & Gretel there is a nugget of a good idea. It’s why I couldn’t write this down as a Money Grab and dismiss it entirely. Somewhere, at some time, someone was onto something with the story of Hansel and Gretel all grown up. There are hints of this development here and there—Hansel refuses to talk about their parents, spazzes completely at the sight of a cut on his sister’s face (which, as bounty hunters, you think he’d be over seeing his sister banged up by that point), and there’s a little hint that maybe Hansel drinks too much and doesn’t get laid enough, but none of that ever goes anywhere that matters. And Renner, coming off his back-to-back Oscar performances in The Hurt Locker and The Town, was practically counting his money in every scene he appeared in. “Phoning it in” is a nice way to judge his performance.
But Gemma Arterton (Tamara Drewe, Prince of Persia) isn’t much better. She’s so beautiful, and believably badass when called on, but she remains an icy screen presence that isn’t especially interesting to watch. She’s technically proficient but devoid of any charm or ease as an actress—you are aware at every moment that you are watching Acting happen—although I’m inclined to go easy on Arterton after the Lay the Favorite debacle with Rebecca Hall. Arterton might not be thrilling to watch but she doesn’t make me want to stab my eyeballs because of her terribleness either. And she does balance Renner’s lazy delivery with a sharper cadence in a solid American accent (although why a couple of Teutonic characters had American accents during the Middle Ages is beyond me). It’s unclear which of the siblings was supposed to be older, but going by Arterton’s general air of togetherness, Gretel was the eldest.
The true joy of Hansel & Gretel, though, lies in Wirkola’s amazing artlessness as a director. Nazi-zombie flick Dead Snow was one of those movies you either liked or you didn’t, and I tolerated it pretty well while still wondering what Wirkola’s value as a director was going to be. Now I know the answer—his value as a director is to serve as a “don’t do this” compendium for would-be filmmakers. Wirkola seems most excited by finding new and ever-grosser ways to spray entrails on his cast instead of concerning himself with things like pacing and plot development, and his script is more interested in using “fucking hillbillies” in reference to a Middle Ages-ish hamlet than infusing his characters with anything resembling actual personalities. Thomas Mann (Project X) plays a Hansel and Gretel fanboy, Ben, who wants to become a witch hunter, too, but we never learn why. We know what motivated the siblings, but what does dopey Ben want with being a witch hunter?
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters started with a viable seed of an idea that turned into a twisted, malformed lump of a movie so spectacularly incompetent it defies logic. That this movie exists at all is enough to earn it a place in the Bad Movie Guide. That it is so hilariously awful and staggeringly terrible across so many levels makes it a Hall of Famer.