Stephen Sommers’s Van Helsing was almost universally panned upon its release in mid-2004, but looking back now, the rhetoric surrounding its critical impalement reads as oddly dated: Rex Reed, in a review typical of its broader reception, called it “a noisy, nasty and repulsive video game-slash-theme park haunted-house ride,” all but heralding its arrival as the death of a more sensible cinema. But Van Helsing, despite its many faults, looks like a modern Nosferatu next to Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, a film whose bombast makes Van Helsing seem quaint by comparison. In just under a decade we’ve clearly raised the upper limits on this kind of blockbuster excess, with Sommers’s old-fashioned Universal Horror sensibility substituted for the brand of slickly “cool” misanthropy popularized by Zack Snyder—an id-pounding spectacle amplified to IMAX size and writ large in three dimensions. The problem isn’t that the experience is utterly vacuous, but that the vacuity itself is underlined by design, so that any pretense of real thought or serious engagement is abandoned without hesitation.
At least Sommers, whatever his faults as a dramatist and visual stylist, had the good sense to approach his nostalgic monster movie in earnest, relishing the genre’s B-movie charms in the manner of a genuine fan. Wirkola, by contrast, has nothing but contempt for this material, inviting his audience to feel smart by embellishing the stupid. Hansel & Gretel makes its agenda clear within minutes: A pre-credits sequence whisks us through the basics of the original Grimm story as a matter of going through the requisite narrative motions, exaggerating the grislier dimension of the source material by way of a plasticy, sub-Tim Burton aesthetic intended to pass for “twisted,” culminating, of course, in the gratuitously violent death of a heavily CGI’d witch whose makeup and costume design appear to be on loan from a J-horror film. A few lines of incongruously irreverent voiceover courtesy of a now-adult Hansel (Jeremy Renner) round out the two-part tonal gambit with which the film hopes to distinguish itself, where vaguely baroque atmospherics brush up unexpectedly with deliberately anachronistic adult humor. The result suggests A Knight’s Tale as penned by Seth MacFarlane.
“Humor,” in this context, is used only in the loosest sense, since Hansel & Gretel’s idea of a gut-busting punchline is to pepper unusually flippant dialogue with the word “fuck.” Its delight at the very idea of foul language—in what has traditionally been a children’s story, you see—is seemingly inexhaustible and, to meet it on its own terms, fucking asinine. One may detect a certain contractual zeal, as though the studio, having resigned itself at some point to being handed an inevitable R rating, felt an overwhelming obligation to make the most of it by appealing vocally to the exploitation crowd, who are consequently pandered to with an air of desperation. Thus every perfunctory gesture toward “mature” content feels entirely phoned-in and focus-grouped, shoehorned into shlock material for some dismal illusion of edginess and cool; the routine is so played-out that even the film’s graphic decapitations fail to shock or surprise. But the once-vital sense of transgression associated with this kind of B-movie exploitation has dissipated to the point of nonexistence, its practices so thoroughly and unabashedly co-opted by Hollywood that even a hard-R horror flick is reduced to a bland amalgamation of tired clichés.