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Season of the witches - Hollywood's new villains meet match in 'Hansel and Gretel'

The sorceress is cinema's latest villain of choice, as seen in a novel update of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 11:06am

Even before the Twilight franchise drew its last breath, Hollywood was already stirring the ingredients into its cauldron for this year's follow-up fantasy film trend. Vampires are dead - and now it's the witching hour.

Beautiful Creatures, a supernatural tale based on Kami Garcia's novel and starring Alice Englert as a "caster" whose powers will either be used for good or evil come her 16th birthday, is due for a February release in the US and around the world. Then there's Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, in which James Franco plays a magician who travels to the land of Munchkins, flying monkeys and that yellow brick road and encounters three witches played by Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis.

Before those movies hit the screens, though, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton will be seen as brother and sister in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, a twist on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Plunder those dim childhood memories, and you may recall their story deals with two young siblings left to fend for themselves in a dark forest, where they encounter a witch living in a house made of confectionery.

Renner admits it's been a long time since he read the tale. "Until the movie came around, I thought fairy tales were things you read to your kids when you go to bed," he says. "This is a terrifying story - brother and sister left in the woods to die and they find a candy house and the witch tries to eat them and they end up killing the witch. The end!"

That, of course, is the Grimm version. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is set 15 years on, with the siblings now grown up, dressing in fashions that seem inspired by the leather-fetish scene and, as the title suggests, hunting vigilante-style any witch that comes their way. With The Avengers star Renner, 42, playing Hansel and 27-year-old British actress Arterton as Gretel, their chief target is Muriel, an "evil to the core" witch, according to Dutch actress Famke Janssen, who plays the arch-villainess. "They seem to have a bigger problem with me than I have with them," she cackles.

No wonder: Janssen's witch is plotting to sacrifice many children at a witches' gathering during the upcoming "Blood Moon" night. "The idea of playing a witch was appealing and different," says the 48-year-old Janssen. "I hadn't done anything like it. Right away, they showed me some sketches of what the character was going to look like, so there was no surprise there - I was going to be hideously ugly."

While she has played evil before - not least her villainess in the Bond film GoldenEye, who crushed her victims with her thighs - it's not hard to see the appeal for this former Chanel model to distort her looks, warts and all. That did leave one problem, though: three to four hours every day in the make-up chair to apply prosthetics. It often meant a 3am start. "I was not entirely prepared for how involved and long that was going to be," she says.

On the X-Men films, Janssen watched others - notably Rebecca Romijn as Mystique - go through prosthetic hell, while she only had to slip on a leather cat-suit to play Dr Jean Grey. "I have a lot more sympathy for them now. I actually wanted to burn the prosthetic make-up by the end of the movie."

Any time she moved, she'd be followed by a team of people with glue-sticks to ensure nothing fell out of place. "A character like a witch feels like you would have so much freedom, because there are no restrictions as to what you can do. But I felt very restricted with this circus."

Prosthetics aside, the tone is part spaghetti western, part The Matrix - with gun play, fistfights and martial arts-style action to draw in the teen market. Arterton, whose Gretel thinks nothing of head-butting her assailants, gets particularly stuck in, even fighting five men alone. "I loved it!" she says. "I loved beating up guys! There's a lot of fairy tale stuff, but that fight is really real and bloody and quite brutal." So it's something of a feminist fairy tale? "In a way. Women are the villains a lot of the time. Not all the time. There are some horrible male villains as well. But I guess Gretel is very feminist. She's quite full on."

Purists will probably be up in arms, the Brothers Grimm might even turn in their graves, but there can be no doubting that the film will attract those looking for some sugar-rush cinema. "It has lightness to it, but it's still graphic and has some language to it," Renner says about the film - which will be shown in 3-D and which has been given a Category IIB (not suitable for young persons and children) rating in Hong Kong. "It is a bit twisted, but it's a lot of fun," he adds. Janssen concurs, calling the film "Tarantino-esque … with a lot of blood, gore and exploding witches".

Of course, it's not Quentin Tarantino who's directing here, but Norwegian-born Tommy Wirkola, who previously made Dead Snow, a horror comedy about a plague of zombies dressed in Nazi uniforms. Arterton, who calls Dead Snow "very, very, very gruesome but also very funny", was particularly attracted to Wirkola's singular vision for Hansel and Gretel.

"He knows what he wants. He's strong. It helped that he wrote the script as well. He was like 'This is my vision, my movie'. You need that, especially on something that's such a genre movie," she says.

Curiously, the film is co-produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay through their company Gary Sanchez Productions. Hollywood star Ferrell and director McKay are best known for their comedy collaborations, such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. So just how funny is it? According to Janssen, the "dark humour" is an integral part of the story. "It's definitely played with a bit of a wink and doesn't take itself too seriously." McKay saw the potential: "We were just like, 'That's a freakin' franchise! You could make three of those'."

Whether that will happen remains to be seen. While last year's Snow White and the Huntsman took almost US$400 million around the globe, enough to green-light a sequel, twists on fairy tales haven't always fared well. Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood (2011) took just US$37 million in the US.

Still, Janssen believes Hansel and Gretel has a universal appeal. "There are certain movies I won't go and see, because I think they're only for boys, but I think women and girls, this will appeal to them. There's a brother and a sister story. And there's a romance in it too - but obviously not with the witch. Nobody falls in love with the witch."

However, judging by this year's crop of witchy movies, that's all about to change.

thereview@scmp.com

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters opens on Thursday

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