The James Clayton Column : Hansel & Gretel – sacred cow killers

With Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters out soon, James salutes the fact that, in cinema, no myth, legend or fairytale is sacred...

Once upon a time, Hansel and Gretel were held captive in the gingerbread house of a horrible witch who successfully lured them in with a trail of breadcrumbs. All had seemed sweet and innocent, but the siblings soon discovered that their elderly hostess was actually an evil terror with cannibalistic tendencies eager to fatten them up and eat them. It’s basically an ancient version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a German forest setting and a miserable short-sighted spinster on a sugar rush in place of a power tool-toting Leatherface.

Fortunately, Hansel and Gretel managed to outwit the blind hag and escape after locking her in her own oven. They got out of the dark dangerous woods and the folk legend ends, most often, with “and they lived happily ever after”.

I’m not completely convinced by that all-too-convenient climax and have questions for the Brothers Grimm or whoever’s regurgitating this icing-laced infant-boiler. Did they really live happily ever after and what does happily ever after look like? Did the duo not end up confronting some form of survivor guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder or biscuit-phobia? Did they find that they were no longer able to trust their negligent parents or old ladies that offer sweets?

The good news is that new movie Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters provides some clarity and presents possible answers. According to this flick, they grew up to be Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton and became bounty hunters specialising in the capture and extermination of dastardly hexcasting crones.

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An 88-minute action-horror movie where classical fairytale meets Witchfinder General with bonus bloodshed? Sounds good to me.

Others, however, disagree and regard Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters as something to be sniffed at (or spat at, if their mood is bad and the bile’s really boiling up in their spleen). Upon its North American release the film was greeted by a wave of negative reviews as disgusted mainstream critics fell over themselves to denounce it. Rounding up the antagonistic critical appraisals – all antipathy to the premise and wanton violence – then reading between the lines, I detect a certain snooty disdain for the ‘silly’ handling of the fairytale and a great struggle to comprehend “why?”

Well, why not? Why not take an ancient story and pulp it up into a gleefully gory schlock action-horror-comedy with gratuitous, visceral witch torture sequences? Likewise, turning to fresh concoction Hansel & Gretel Get Baked, why not use the tale as the basis for a stoner comedy set in suburban America?

Hansel & Gretel – like Romeo And Juliet, Greek myths, A Christmas Carol and so many other old fables – is a timeless legend that can be interpreted and retold in infinite ways. Regardless of whether the individual films are good or bad, it’s better to live in a world where there are numerous diverse adaptations of these folk tales. Things are more interesting that way and audiences have greater freedom to indulge their own taste and preferences. That might be Hansel & Gretel as witch hunters, Hansel & Gretel as potheads, Hansel & Gretel as a chilling modern-day Korean horror thriller or Hansel & Gretel: An Opera Fantasy which realises Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera as a charming stop-motion animation.

In the contempt thrown Witch Hunters’ way I catch traces of an ugly judgemental mindset that I think is one of the most prevalent pollutants ailing modern pop culture. In this case, fairytale purists aren’t impressed with this horror pulpification and other critics are averse to B-movie-esque productions that mash-up old traditions or historical icons.

Moving from fairytales to ‘true’ history, recent movies like The Raven (Edgar Allan Poe the detective solving murders he’s inspired) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (exactly as the title suggests) have suffered similar critiques. Scorned by sanctimonious naysayers, they’re rejected out of hand as inferior anachronistic flicks – silly things that probably shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

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I, however, take the total opposite stance and reckon that these ‘ludicrous’ features should be produced. For a start, they might actually give audiences a good time at the cinema (Lincoln is the ultimate Honest Abe biopic but Vampire Hunter offers fantastic escapism). Even if they’re awful formulaic gimmicks punched out as blatant cashgrabs, they aren’t as harmful to culture and society as snobbery and discriminatory closed-mindedness. Yes, I am saying that refusing to tolerate the existence of material like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter makes you a cultural fascist who’s possibly more bereft of human decency than the most base hack artist.

Generally, I think there’s a critical dismissiveness towards action cinema as a whole but I’m also perturbed by the rolling eyes and po-faced response to anything that embraces irreverence and iconoclasm. These things must be allowed to thrive or else we end up taking everything too seriously and trapping ourselves in ideological straightjackets, wrangling over what’s worthy and what’s not worthy. No one has the right to decide that on behalf of the mass of humanity – a mass made up of individuals with their own thoughts, feelings, tastes and personal experiences.

We figure that we’re pretty open these days and that an “anything goes” attitude characterises a democratised cultural landscape. Nonetheless, occasional cases continue to highlight how restrictive voices (both from within ‘the establishment’ and the audience) continue to exert a presence and make authoritarian powerplays. Outraged opinion-lords encourage censorship and denial and that, in my view, is not healthy.

The reactions to Quentin Tarantino’s brace of period pics – Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained – provide a good example. “How dare he portray the Holocaust and American slavery in such style!” hollering (I’m looking at you, Spike Lee) suggests that every film on those respective subjects has to be like Lincoln or Schindler’s List. Yet even Steven Spielberg gets slammed for daring to cinematically depict the past so you get a sense that certain sensitive topics and periods of history are strictly verboten.

By building up taboos you prohibit any chance of proper debate and investigation of complex issues. Plus you’re liable to promote ignorance and collective repression but for now I’ll dial it down and deal with these issues in special relation to the film industry.

‘No go’ zones aren’t conducive to creativity and there’s a problem if principles of “thou shalt not” are being perpetuated. Limiting the potential vision of filmmakers means brilliant, radical ideas or great innovations may possibly never be allowed to occur. On a deeper level we end up clinging to conservatism and constraints. We’ll be calcified and people won’t push boundaries or embrace alternate ways of thinking because the idea of challenging accepted standards or being provocative are discouraged and disallowed.

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There should be no sacred cows. I say this having recently seen Hitchcock – a gleeful gravedancing biopic that renders one of my untouchable movie idols as a caricature, turns the making of Psycho into a domestic melodrama and features sequences where Hitch has therapy sessions with Ed Gein. It was the most entertaining horrible experience I’ve had so far this year. I was appalled but simultaneously had a lot of fun which, for me personally, reinforces the point that irreverence is bliss.

Why so serious? Why get caught up in geek rage and waste all your energies erecting barriers and getting angry about things that offend your oh-so-precious delicate sensibilities?

There’s a lot of arrogant self-entitlement floating around in the arenas of film criticism and occasionally I think we all need a perspective shift to re-adjust our minds and ensure they’re open and acceptant. We need to be careful that we don’t cling to those aforementioned sacred cows and cart around assumed rules or restrictive mindsets – especially when we start to divisively dismissing things as silly, inferior or unworthy. It’s even more important that we don’t force these hang-ups on others.

I’d like to think that collectively we’re closer to an ‘anything goes’ culture than one that self-censors or limits creative potential. There’s more than enough room for violent exploitation fairytales to exist alongside family-friendly fairytales. We can have and enjoy both serious factual biopics and fast-and-loose alternate histories and so on. I’d personally live in a world where nothing is taken too seriously, where Abe Lincoln slays vampires, Hansel & Gretel torture witches and iconoclastic moviemakers slaughter sacred cows than live under conceited cultural fascism.

James Clayton is going to approach Charles Robo-Dickens, Poltergeistfinder General with an open mind because, hey, it could be fun. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ previous column here.

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