Writer-director Tommy Wirkola’s style is one that will either delight you with its over-the-top gore and sick brand of humor, or will disgust you for the same reasons. I’m happily in the former camp. My first introduction to Wirkola’s work was the fantastic original film Dead Snow – two words: Nazi zombies. While I missed his broader effort Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters when it opened in theaters, last night I had the opportunity to attend the premiere of the film in all of its uncut glory. The film may not have found its audience stateside, but the global box office of nearly $225 million gives hope that Wirkola will be around for future efforts. Perhaps the unrated cut version of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, available now on digital platforms and due out on Blu-ray/DVD on June 11th, will find more of a home with American audiences. For my review of that particular cut, which features 12 minutes of previously-unseen bloody and violent footage, hit the jump.
While not as wholly original as Dead Snow, Wirkola certainly does put his own spin on the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. Rather than helpless children lost in the woods and getting fat by gnawing on candy houses, the brother-sister duo discover their particular knack for witch hunting at a very early age. After an introductory scene that establishes Wirkola’s brand of comedic horror much better than the film’s marketing campaign did, we jump forward in time to a Frankenstein-ian little burgh populated by townspeople who are terrified by the recent plague of witches and eager to burn suspicious ne’er-do-wells at the stake. Luckily, the mayor of said town is a soft-spoken and rational man who hires the heroic witch hunters to solve their problem for them. Things don’t go exactly as planned.
Wirkola sets up a pretty basic premise: send the witch hunters after various witches terrorizing the countryside, introduce a cast of memorable supporting characters aligned on either side of the good/evil line and throw in a few plot twists to keep the audience guessing. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton get equal amounts of ass-kicking and one-liners, though they’re a bit too sexy together to be a believable brother-sister duo. The co-stars – played by Peter Stormare, Thomas Mann and Derek Mears, among others – are solid additions who hit all the right notes with the audience, whether they be dastardly, comedic or just endearing. The plot, however, gets a bit lost in the second act as it meanders back and forth between the town, the countryside and the lair of the big bad witch, Muriel (Famke Janssen).
After we slog through the disorienting swamp that is the middle of the film, we find Muriel at the center of an overall plot arc that resolves nicely in the third act. While the entire film is populated with creative and comedic fight scenes, there’s one big battle near the end that shows off Wirkola’s imaginative vision. At times, the witches may seem to be inspired by Hocus Pocus or The Wizard of Oz or other such similar fare, but when the entire coven unites there is plenty of variety to be found. Albino witches, half-witches, Siamese twin witches and more swarm over the cliffs in an all-out battle against the siblings. While this is the biggest set piece of the film, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters resolves in a much more personal battle that does justice to the heroes at the center of the picture.
Since I missed the theatrical release, it’s hard for me to say just where the 12 minutes of previously-unseen material was cut in. Before the screening, Wirkola said that, although some films claim to have scenes “too graphic for audiences,” that was actually the case with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Some of his more controversial scenes – such as a witch about to eat a tiny baby suspended by a rope – were still too far out for the uncut version, though perhaps this scene will make the Blu-ray release. Scenes that did make this cut included a number of grisly head smashes and bloody explosions. The extra minutes take the film to an even 100 minutes of run time, which might account for some irregularities in pacing of the uncut version. Still, they’re worth it for those who like Wirkola’s sensitivies.
What really sells the movie is Wirkola’s style, which I touched on earlier. His brand of humor and horror is a tough one to market, for example, Hansel getting the “Sugar Sickness” from eating too much witch candy that requires him to inject himself every few hours. On a related note, that style is particularly tough to massage into a film with broad market appeal. After seeing the uncut version, it’s apparent to me that Wirkola remains confident in his own vision and hasn’t been made generic by the Hollywood studio process. It’s refreshing. It’s also encouraging to know that Wirkola’s films can find success on the global scale, meaning this won’t be a one-time opportunity for him. Do your part to keep Wirkola relevant and check out Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters available now on digital platforms, and on VOD and Blu-ray/DVD on June 11th.