Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Hansel And Gretel Witch HuntersIf you go down to the woods today… Well, don’t. You’re likely to find some wizened old hag living in a gingerbread house. That’s what happens to young Hansel and Gretel who, as the Brothers Grimm fairytale goes, incinerate the witch in her oven and live to fight another day. Literally, according to Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, as the ‘hero orphans’ grow up to roam the land in skin-tight bondage gear, kicking ass.

In the woods near Augsburg, Germany, something’s hunting children. These aren’t the rhapsodic woods of Terrence Malick’s imaginings – they’re positively stuffed with scabby-chinned witches.

Which is where strapping Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and whip-tongued Gretel (Gemma Arterton) come in, hired by the Mayor of Augsburg to take out Grand Witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) before the Blood Moon rises. If only Janssen could stop over-acting long enough for them to lop off her head.

Complicating matters is swaggering Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare, barking every line), who doesn’t like the idea of the heroes swooping in to save his town, and sends his own murderous posse to get rid of them.

Cue blood-splattered skirmishes in which Dead Snow director Tommy Wirkola demonstrates he’s still unafraid of the red stuff, but has no clue how to stage an edgy stand-off.

That lack of tension hobbles the entire film, not least in a studio-bound climactic witch-fight that feels like a lost scene from Xena: Warrior Princess.
The world Wirkola creates doesn’t make a jot of sense – our not-so-terrific twosome trade in oddly futuristic weaponry and for all the gore and F-bombs, H&G:WH feels too simplistic to be anything other than a kids’ film.

Shame; as a concept, it’s airtight: with Will Ferrell producing and Wirkola keen to inject more blood into Hollywood horror, this seemed primed for a good old-fashioned B-horror bum-kicking.

Instead of delivering a fairytale Evil Dead, though, Wirkola’s film stakes out similar terrain to 2012’s po-faced Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, bleeding its premise into a husk that’s devoid of life or humour.

It’s disappointing considering the strength of Wirkola’s amusingly barmy Dead Snow. Sadly, the Norwegian joins a long line of European filmmakers who’ve upped sticks to Hollywood, only to lose their verve along the way. By the time Janssen hisses, “The end is nigh”, you’ll be praying she’s speaking the truth.

Verdict: Though it gives good splat and the scenery’s to die for, Hansel & Gretel gets just about everything wrong. Hammy, boring, chronically unfunny – there’ll be nightmares before bedtime. 2/5

Via Total Film

Piranha (1978)

PiranhaOf all the films released in the 1970s that retrospectively raged against the Vietnam War (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver), perhaps the least likely was Piranha.

Made for buttons (well, $770,000) over 30 days, its B-horror status didn’t stop it taking a swipe at that conflict.

That it did so by serving up fishy Brazilian carnivores, bred as finny weapons to infiltrate Vietnamese waters, is merely par for the course in a Roger Corman production.

In director Joe Dante’s own words, Piranha is a “semi-political, semi-spoof science-fiction movie”. In reality it’s a schlocky, low-budget cash-in greenlit to surf the Jaws wave. Exhibit A: the opening scare, in which a pair of backpackers take a midnight dip, only to be dragged under the reddening surface.

Exhibit B: a nutty team of hunters in bumbling insurance investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) and booze-loving Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who attempt to prevent a voracious school of piranhas from chowing down on summer camp kiddies and theme park revellers.

If Jaws was a rounded paternal drama dressed up as a monster movie, Piranha is pure, galumphing beast. Menzies and Dillman make a fun double act but most impressive is just how far Dante pushes that horror handle. Though the gore is mostly limited to foaming red water, Dante’s fishy fiends chomp on anyone and everyone (including the nippers).

The newbie director also pinched a few tricks from Spielberg’s film, namely the palpable tension whenever anybody dunks a toe in something wet. And there are glimmers of that distinctive Dante humour throughout: “What about the goddamn piranhas?” yells theme park owner Dick Miller. “They’re eating the guests, sir,” comes the reply.

Cheap-looking and predictable, Piranha’s premise remains irresistible. How else do you explain two remakes (one of them made for TV) in 30 years? Alexandre Aja’s 2010 reboot upped the camp, meaning Dante’s film feels quainter, its humour gentler.

It’s anything but dead in the water though. That chewy Vietnam subtext keeps things swimming, while at the film’s ominous close the corrupt Dr Mengers (Barbara Steele) attempts to reassure us “there’s nothing left to fear”.

Not until James Cameron’s angst-ridden Piranha II took flight, that is… 3/5

Via Total Film

Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

Zombi-2-Zombie-Flesh-EatersIt was always going to be an oddity. Released as an unofficial (Italian) sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. Directed by a dumped-from-grace Lucio Fulci. Book-ended with New York scenes shot specifically for the overseas market. Zombie Flesh Eaters should have been DOA. The oddest thing by far about this singularly gruesome zombie saga, though, is the considerable artistry in its gore-and-grit-churning tale of the ravenous undead.

A pre-credits sequence hints at what we’re in for. A bound man slowly rises from a bed. A gun is fired. The man’s head implodes with a shock of red that the camera guzzles up as greedily as any flesh-muncher. It’s just the first of many artery-spurting kills, the most famous of which has a young woman impaled through the eyeball (a scene restored when ZFE was finally released uncut in 2005) as zombies overrun the remote community of Matul Island.

If the plentiful gore still shocks, Fulci impresses most with admirable command over his material. Both blood-thirsty and eccentric, ZFE is a curious blend of Giallo and Hammer (check out Richard Johnson’s death-obsessed physician) that’s all hysteria-level thrills – zombies fight sharks, worms writhe in rotting skulls and women scuba-dive topless.

So what if the dubbing’s dreadful, the acting grotty? As it builds to a blazing inferno of a climax, replete with foreboding Big Apple epilogue, Zombie Flesh Eaters’ appetite for destruction is nothing short of exhilarating. 4/5