We’ve finally come upon the creepy month of October in all its glory; a perfect time of month to binge on some movies, if I do say so myself. A couple years ago I did just that, taking a short, but pleasant trip down Tim Curry’s filmography. This year, though, I’ve decided to take things from a bit of a more festive angle. Ever since I was younger, the idea of witches interested me greatly, especially as they showed up in pop culture. As I’ve grown, this interest has bloomed from a passing interest in fictional magic, to embracing the idea of being a “witch” as a form of empowerment—especially in the case of women and girls—and even looking deeper into some Wiccan/Pagan philosophies. So, it seems only right that I sit down to a couple nights full of theatrical witchy goodness.
….is what I want to say, but my first choice on this endeavor ended up being not so great. Back in 2012, Lady Geek Girl herself proffered the trailer to one, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. I won’t lie and say that I’m not attracted to the idea of darker interpretations of fairy tales, but it should also be obvious that these re-writes can’t rely on aesthetic alone to give us a compelling story. Witch Hunters did give its audience some interesting takes on the old fable, but these small breadcrumbs of something greater didn’t lead me anywhere worth going.
The film starts with the story we already know: Hansel and Gretel are left in the forest by their father and are eventually found by a witch who wants to eat Hansel. The two children succeed in killing her instead, and this kicks off the film’s conception of the two as witch hunters. Cut to the small town of Augsburg, where a woman—Mina—is being tried by a mob for being a witch. Lately, the town has been plagued by witches kidnapping their children, and with tensions high, the Sheriff decides that killing any woman who may possibly be a witch is a great answer to this. Before the deed is done, the mayor of the town steps in, bringing the now much older Hansel and Gretel with him. Upon coming to the conclusion that Mina could not be a witch because she shows no sign of “the darkness” seeping into her skin, she is freed. The Sheriff is pissed that Hansel and Gretel have come, for some reason; however, no one really cares what he thinks and the mayor settles down to business. The siblings, discovering a scroll among the piles of missing child posters, deduce that the witches have been gathering children to perform a ritual on the night of the blood moon, which just so happens to be three nights away. The movie is all too glad to tell us that the grand black witch Muriel is gathering ingredients to make a powerful potion that will allow any witch to withstand burning at the stake. Muriel and her cronies swoop into town one night for the final child they need and end up completely overtaking the siblings, dumping Hansel in the woods and grievously wounding Gretel.
While Mina takes the opportunity to heal Hansel with a suspiciously witchy pond (and with sex), Gretel ventures into the forest looking for her brother after being tended to by a very devoted fan of the siblings, but instead comes upon the Sheriff and his lackeys. He’s still pissed about his authority being undermined or something, so they all gang up on Gretel and beat her up. She fights back, but is almost overpowered until a troll steps in, satisfyingly crushing the Sheriff’s head underfoot. The troll brings Gretel to some hidden stream in the woods and tends to her wounds, simply telling Gretel that he exists to serve witches when she asks him why he saved her (a smart question, given that he was helping Muriel and her coven the scene before).
Eventually the siblings do run into each other again, and surprisingly in their old childhood home—which they start out by calling an “abnormal witch’s lair” before they realize where they are. Gretel tries to explain to Hansel that the reason why they’re so great at witch hunting is that their mother was a witch—a suspicion of Gretel’s confirmed by a newspaper clipping she found in their fanboy’s scrapbook—but he refuses to listen. Luckily, Muriel arrives just in time to force the exposition down everyone’s throats and reveals that she needs Gretel because the final ingredient to the anti-burning potion is the heart of a grand white witch (essentially a “good” witch with like… healing and love magic? The movie wasn’t really clear). Once again, Hansel is wrecked and Gretel is kidnapped.
With the help of Mina—who is revealed to be a witch after all, but a good one!—and the siblings’ fanboy, Hansel sets out to put an end to the blood moon ritual. Unsurprisingly, it works and the blood moon passes with no potion being brewed and no children being slaughtered. Muriel is cornered by the siblings in the candy witch’s home, and it’s there where she is brought down once and for all by a clean cut across her neck. (Because why be thematically appropriate and burn her to death?) The day is saved! Hansel and Gretel get paid! And I sit in my room laughing because this movie was so bad.
To be fair, I can tell that everyone involved tried so hard to make Witch Hunters good, but it’s just not. All the twists are telegraphed from the moment the film starts, the symbolism is lazy, and some of the witch designs are cool, but the fights are oh-my-god-so-boring to watch. I think one of the most boring aspects of the film, actually, is its interpretation of witches. In the movie’s universe, witches are shown to be sickly pale, their skin legitimately flaking and cracking apart with darkness lurking just behind the outer layer of skin. When a witch gains her powers by “consorting with the devil” and such, it’s by this darkness that people can truly tell that she is a witch. At the very beginning, the designs seem to lean heavily on the anti-Semitic depictions of witches we’ve all grown up with: long crooked noses, hunched backs, gnarled fingers, and so on. Though these designs are abandoned once we get to the current time of the film, we get a two-fer which is just as equally lazy.
First of all, all witches who use black magic are inherently ugly and bad. The bad witches are the ones with the cracked, pale skin, the inhuman mannerisms, and the Hot Topic wardrobe. When you’re a bad witch, all you do is smirk at everyone and hiss every single one of your words. If you’re a good witch who uses white magic, you’re beautiful and pure. Hansel and Gretel’s mother, while initially shown as cruel, was conventionally beautiful—so of course she ended up being one of the grand white witches. Mina, the whitest white witch that ever witched, is the only person in the whole damned movie with blonde hair, and she wears golden dresses. Just in case you didn’t get that she was a good person by the fact she was saved by Hansel.
The tired misogynistic kicker comes in with Muriel. Being a Grand Black witch, Muriel also has the flaked pale skin of her sisters—however, she also has the ability to look “normal”, by which I mean beautiful, of course. Grand black witches have the power to reshape their bodies, which only buys into the trope of the “powerful, sexy woman” as it’s stated that only a black witch of a high power has a chance to turn themselves into a beautiful woman. This could have been interesting in some ways if it was used to show the villagers and Hansel how idiotic they were being by assuming that witches had to look decrepit to be bad, but this exists only to have Muriel always appear young and beautiful, rather than looking like the other black witches around her.
Beyond this, Witch Hunters suffers immensely from unnecessary aspects in its plot. There are small things like Hansel suffering from “sugar sickness” (apparently some proxy for diabetes) where if he doesn’t take a shot every couple of hours, he’ll die, but then the movie forgets this until it tries to use it for a tense moment in the final battle. The most egregious, however, are the characters themselves, namely Mina and Ben. You may notice that I didn’t mention Ben by name at all in the synopsis. That is because he’s not important. Without him, nothing would have changed about the movie. In fact, things may have been better without him. Ben is a huge fanboy of Hansel and Gretel, and has been following their witch hunting exploits with an excitement bordering on obsession. He’s there mostly to be annoying and fanboy-y and to remind the audience that hey, hey, Hansel and Gretel are really cool! Ben does two things in the movie: he shoots down Muriel at the end, which forces the showdown at the candy witch’s home, and rescues Gretel from Muriel’s initial kidnapping attempt.
While yes, both of these actions serve a purpose in the greater plot, they take away action from characters who could have made better use of it. If we’re supposed to see how cool Hansel and Gretel are, why didn’t Hansel shoot down Muriel at the end instead of this village boy who admits himself that he’s only kind of a good shot? More importantly, though, Gretel is straight-up written as an “empowered female character”, but she spends less time fighting and more time getting knocked out and rescued. Rather than having Ben save her, it would have been much more meaningful to have Gretel save her damn self and use her own resourcefulness to evade Muriel until she could fight her more evenly. Instead, we get a scene of Ben tenderly cleaning Gretel’s wounds and creepily almost groping her while she rested. I guess what I can say for Ben is that he never became Gretel’s love interest, and thank god for that.
That’s where Mina comes in, though. Mina exists only to be Hansel’s love interest–which is unfortunate because they have no chemistry. She goes from simply thanking Hansel for saving her life (understandable and believable) to, in the very next scene they’re in together, bathing naked with him in the healing waters and having a make-out session. There is absolutely no reason for them to even be together outside of the whims of the writers. Despite his sister being a grand white witch, apparently, it’s only through Mina that Hansel begins thinking that maybe, just maybe, not all witches are bad. It’s more than a simple moment of introspection, however: Hansel really only comes to this conclusion after Mina is murdered battling Muriel. Every part of Mina’s existence was there to keep Hansel’s character growth going, rather than her having a character of her own. Hansel’s arc could have easily been achieved utilizing his sister’s discovery that their mother was a witch, and similarly that she, herself, is a witch (which never comes up again ever, by the way).
All this combined with the unfair treatment Gretel receives—Hansel gets to be called the equivalent of an asshole while Gretel is referred to as a bitch by the Sheriff, for example—makes Witch Hunters ultimately an almost comically bad film. It’s just a mess. While I honestly don’t expect much from these re-imagined fairy tale films (definitely not surprised that there were literally no actors of color in the whole thing), Witch Hunters left me stunned with the sheer level of clichéd, boring bullshit in its story, and didn’t even have the decency to at least have its fights be cool. Strangely enough, I don’t feel like I want the time I spent watching this film back. Make no mistake, the film was horrible, but so much so that it almost reached “so bad it’s good” levels. I did enjoy Gretel as a character, as it happens, and the technology and weaponry of the movie’s world is rather fascinating. However, I definitely can’t recommend this in good faith unless you want a laugh or two.