Friday, June 28, 2013

Strange Subtext

I rented Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters from Redbox, since they were kind enough to offer me a coupon for a free 1-night rental. My older brother's comment when I showed him was, "It's so weird they had diabetes back then."

If, like him, you're confused about why a remake of a 19th-century fairytale with steampunk elements would mention the "sugar sickness," I would counter with why one would expect realism from a gothic-horror fantasy film. Besides, diabetes has been around for ages.

The movie is fun, campy terrible and overly violent, as anything with gatling guns, multi-shot revolving crossbows, and pull-string action electric shockers is bound to be at least B-movie levels of awful in the way Van Helsing was. However, I think because of all the recent news regarding the Microsoft rape joke controversy and sexual harassment at E3, the pro-rape seduction guide that was funded on Kickstarter (and then pulled), and the other nasty mysogynistic news articles from around the internet, I was very in tune with the film's representation of women, and noticed some problematic aspects in it.


The movie opens with the familiar plot of the story with the children's mother ordering the father to take them into the woods and abandon them. They find the candy house, and the ugly old witch that occupies it. After being captured and tormented, the children successfully fight back and kill the hag (magic doesn't work on them!), setting up for the opening credits wherein Hansel and Gretel continue to hunt and kill witches. The credits make very nice use of advertising and drawing skills of historical advertising and announcements, taking care to show off the witches as monstrous, foreshadowing how the evil magic-users will continue to appear.

Reopening on a town square, there is an angry mob and a man of authority accusing a pretty young woman of being a witch, and inciting the crowd to burn her at the stake. Considering what I know of witch hunts in this era of history, the actors successfully illustrate the terror and wrongness of the situation. Luckily Jeremy Renner Hansel and Gemma Arterton Gretel show up to clarify that hot people are obviously not witches, as the dark deeds witches do manifests itself in their bodies, making them look diseased and ugly. The rescued woman is obviously very grateful, and is totally set up for a romantic subplot as the damsel in distress, pleh.

Meanwhile, we are given the film's main dramatic conflict: the town has been suffering from a witch plague, and lots of children have been going missing. Even the witch hunters notice that this is an abnormally high amount of witch activity. After the incredibly incompetent sheriff, named Berringer, scoffs at these experts entirely valid opinions on the situation, Hansel and Gretel decide to do the smart thing and hunt for clues later when it's daylight and they have the advantage. To pass the time, they go shopping at the market, where Hansel has a brief scene with Mina, who is predictably thankful and mooning over the powerful witch hunter, and we are reminded that diabetes exists. I did appreciate the steampunk style of the injector needle for this bit.

To prove he is better at getting results than the experienced Hansel and Gretel, Sheriff Berringer sends a handful of trackers to go find witches in the woods at night, even though everyone, including the trackers, knows how bad an idea that is. Predictably, all the red shirts hired help, except one, is killed by a powerful witch, who happens to be able to mask herself as a normal looking beautiful woman. The survivor is sent back to town and finds everyone in the tavern, including Ben, a fanboy of Hansel and Gretel and an overly enthusiastic wannabe witch hunter. The survivor delivers the powerful grand witch Muriel's warning before exploding in a bloody mess. There is also a cut scene of the three main evil witches and how they'd really like to not die from being set on fire. Lofty goals, ladies, but a worthwhile cause.

Not to be deterred in the slightest, Hansel and Gretel prove how awesome they are the next day by setting a trap and hunting down the horned witch from the earlier cut scene. Bringing her back to town for interrogation (brutally beating her up), they discover the evil witch plot: sacrifice 6 boys and 6 girls for the ritual of the Blood Moon (lunar eclipse) to give all the dark witches protection from fire and immortality. Or something. After figuring out they still need a girl born in April, Hansel tries to get at the town's birth records while verbally sparring with Sheriff Berringer, who is still convinced he is better than everyone and that Hansel and Gretel are charlatans. Yes.

Meanwhile, Muriel, her other henchwitch, and a troll manage to attack the town and make off with the girl. Hansel and Gretel fight valiantly, but fail to rescue the girl, and end up separated and knocked out by the end of the battle. Hansel is found upside-down in a tree the next morning by Mina, who takes him to a spring to heal his wounds and have a sex scene. Gretel is unconscious and being tended to by Ben, who gets uber-creepy when he tries to feel up her boobs while washing her not-dirty or feverish looking body. Luckily, Gretel wakes up and appropriately chastises him. When she goes off into the woods to find her brother, she is ambushed and captured by Berringer's lackeys. Despite bravely fighting off the witches and preventing severe loss of life and wider spread property damage, Sheriff Berringer blames the two witch hunters and proceeds to beat up and make rape threats at Gretel. The troll from earlier hears the scuffle and comes roaring in, effectively killing all the men threatening Gretel. The troll then proceeds to carry the injured and confused Gretel off to another healing spring to tend to her, in a disturbingly similar way to the way Ben "tended her." It is then revealed that the troll is named Edward and that trolls "serve witches" (was starting to wonder at this point if this was a twist and actually her father or someone else she once knew or just a friendly gesture amidst all the madness).

The two siblings are reunited at an abandoned cabin, which turns out to be their childhood home, and also bears evidence of being a witch's lair. Muriel shows up for some reason and gives creepy exposition on what really went down the night they were ditched in the forest by their father. Turns out their mother, Adrianna, was a grand white witch, and the evil witches needed her heart for a spell. Being too powerful to take down, the witches planned to use Gretel, since titles are bestowed at birth and not earned after rigorous study in this universe. When abandoned in the woods, their parents were actually trying to keep them safe from an angry mob of villagers who believed the evil witches' rumors that their mom was an evil witch. Not only did the mob manage to burn their mother at the stake, but then lynched their father and left them both for dead. Angry at Muriel for the story, they fight her, but Hansel is left wounded, and Gretel is abducted for the Blood Moon ceremony, since apparently her heart is still good for it.

Hansel awakes for the second time to Mina tending his wounds (stalker much?) and realizes she is also a witch. We have an unnecessary tense moment of drama from Hansel, who hates all witches, even when presented with beautiful women who like to take care of his injuries. Or maybe he was just freaked out from this revelation considering he just found out his mom was a witch. Anyways, overly unneeded reinforcement of the good witch/bad witch discussion. Mina happens to have found Adrianna's white witch manual, and knows how to use a spell to bless weapons for +9 to kill witches. Hansel recruits Ben, since he's around, to join him and Mina to take down all the evil witches, disrupt the evil ceremony, rescue Gretel, and free the kidnapped children.

The designs for the evil witches are nicely stylized and creepy, but this part is where I realize that only women are witches. So even though the battle scene is awesomely staged and violent (Mina can totally use a gatling gun!) it is rather disturbing to see all these powerful women beaten on and taken down in incredibly gory ways. We are also treated to the *heroine turns henchman against boss and is injured because of it* trope when Edward defies Muriel and frees Gretel, thus getting thrown off a cliff for his trouble. There are also broomstick chase scenes with Muriel and some of the witches reminiscent of the forest race scene from Return of the Jedi. Ben is also apparently a good shot and manages to destroy Muriel's broom when she flies by. After recouping, and also defibrillating Edward back to life with a hand-cranked stun gun, all the important characters manage to track Muriel to the ruined remains of the candy house where Hansel and Gretel killed their first witch. During the confrontation, Ben is wounded and Muriel fatally stabs Mina, fulfilling her fate as the disposable damsel. The siblings then engage in a grueling fight against Muriel inside the gingerbread house, brutally beating on her, chaining her up, until finally they behead her with a shovel. Eyup.

Hansel and Gretel then collect the rest of their reward from the town for rescuing the children. Interspersed with the end credits is the two siblings embarking on their next hunt, with Ben and Edward joining them.

Again, while the movie wasn't terrible since I expected ridiculous B-movie levels of awful anyway, I still was left with some disturbing connotations from the movie's treatment of its female characters.

While both men and women in this film were beaten on, only the female characters had scenes with implications or overt threats of sexual violence. I'm also not sure what the message is that only women can be witches, and pretty much every witch in this movie is physically assaulted at some point. Mina is also problematic, since by the time she is allowed to fight or have any agency, she is firmly ensconced in being romantically connected to the male protagonist. Up until the revelation she is a white witch, she's following all the traits of being strictly a love interest for Hansel, with little character development otherwise. I do like that Gretel isn't forced into being romantically connected to anybody, especially after that creepy scene with Ben, but there is still the problem of how many scenes have her involved in threats of sexual violence. At least she's just as competent a warrior as her brother. I can only hope the sequel does better in terms of how they represent women.