Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Before the semester started, I rewatched The Hours on Netflix just to put myself in the mood for my feminism and literature class. The Hours is a poignant drama, and it's one of my favorite films. But as much as I have an appreciation for well-written, well-acted, and overall well-crafted films, the movies that I really love best are schlocky genre films. These two categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive--think of The Excorcist and 2001: A Space Odyssey for examples of extremely well-made genre films. But of course there are a lot of perfectly enjoyable movies that are just unabashedly silly.
I was really excited to see Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, precisely because I expected it to be wonderfully bad and enjoyably goofy. My expectations were a little bit too high, I think--probably because the look and theme of the film made me think of Army of Darkness--and there was a LOT about the movie that was just plain bad. But there was fun to be had. My friends and I laughed a lot, and enjoyed the over-the-top violence.
Going into the movie, I had no preconceived ideas about the story. I just assumed there wouldn't be much of a story, and technically I was right. But there was an unexpected twist that Hansel and Gretel's mother had been a good witch, and that Gretel herself was a latent "white" witch, and I appreciated that. I'm a sucker for mother-daughter narratives, and especially for monstrous mothers.
Witches in popular media (Harry Potter aside) mostly fall into three basic archetypes: the benevolent "white" witch, the evil repulsive hag, and the sultry evil seductress. All of these tropes are misogynistic, or are generally employed in deeply sexist ways, but personally I think the seductress is the worst offender. She combines the sexual objectification of women with the understanding of women as inherently devious or unstable. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were no evil seductress witches to be found in Hansel and Gretel. The bad witches are monstrous crones (very much in vein of the female Deadites in the Evil Dead movies) and the good witches are equally straightforward. A good witch who is introduced as Hansel's love interest has no ulterior motive--though she also has no backstory or arc, and ends up refrigerated at the film's climax.
Overall, the treatment of women and gender--and related intersectional issues--in the movie is a mixed bag. The only disabled or "deformed" characters appear among the horde of evil witches: there are conjoined twin witches, as well as a witch with no legs. The only good female character other than Gretel is killed to further Hansel's arc.
On the other hand, Gretel is a hyper-competent badass. She doesn't escape being sexualized, either for the gaze of the audience or within the film's universe, but she doesn't suffer it gladly. And when a sexist sheriff gets in her face, she wordlessly responds once by head-butting him and again by viciously biting his nose, in two unexpected moments that got laughs of appreciation out of my friends and me.
As problematic as she is, I absolutely love the classic hag witch. "It looks like witches really are coming back as horror villains," one of my friends said to me as we left the theater, referring to my delight last year at Paranormal Activity 3's introduction of witches into the franchise's mythology. I really look forward to seeing more frightening, monstrous witches in horror, if popular media really is moving away from New Age teen witches and the sanitized "witches" of Harry Potter.
The more the classic crone witch makes her way back into the popular consciousness, the more opportunity there will be for talented writers to complicate her. A beloved character like Granny Weatherwax is so compelling precisely because she represents a riff on a monstrous archetype, not an attempt to jettison or circumvent that archetype.