Saturday, April 13, 2013

This Is Not the Fairy Tale You Grew Up With

Hansel e Gretel (1990)
Director: Giovanni Simonelli
Rating: 4.5 / 10

With modern interpretations of fairy tales all the rage at the moment, it's probably worth taking a step backwards in time to remind ourselves that it's all been done before. Well, sort of. This 1990 feature by prolific screenwriter Giovanni Simonelli isn't at all like the modern action-driven fantasy films you'll find at the multiplex. It actually doesn't even have much to do with fairy tales at all. To get a better sense of the territory it falls into, all you need to see is "Lucio Fulci Presents" displayed proudly over the title. Don't get your hopes up though - other than lending his name to the film in a cheap ploy to make it marketable, Fulci had nothing to do with this film. To be honest, his name is probably the only reason why this film is remembered at all. Other than an obligatory moment of ocular trauma and the general low-budget 80's aesthetic, there's not a whole lot of resemblance to his body of work.

Despite its name, Hansel e Gretel actually has almost nothing to do with the original story, other than that it features two kids, a house, and a wicked mother figure. The film opens on a remarkably dark note, even for a merciless Italian horror flick.  Young Hansel and Gretel wander down a road one day and stop to inspect an abandoned car, which turns out to be not so abandoned. They're promptly chloroformed, kidnapped, and taken away to an old mansion. Inside, they're ushered into a makeshift surgical theater where their organs are harvested to be sold. It's a really abruptly and twisted start to the story, and I had high hopes that it'd stay in similarly dark territory. Unfortunately, it's mostly downhill after the first ten minutes.

What follows is a very straightforward, very repetitive tale of ghostly revenge. Young Hansel and Gretel are haven't been buried for a single day when their ghosts rise from the ground red-eyed, blank-faced and looking stoned as hell. They're pissed at being dead so young, and begin offing people with their telekinetic powers. You can't make a movie out of death scenes alone though*, so to give us a reason to keep watching we're introduced to Sylvia, a recently recruited detective who's assigned to the case of a human trafficking ring run by a woman named Solange (a nod to Massimo Dellamano?). Sylvia goes to investigate the suspicious activity at Solange's estate and decides to live there temporarily while she carries out her work. Is this standard protocol? Somehow I don't think so. Since people at the estate have been dying in all sorts of suspicious ways, Sylvia begins to suspect that something fishy is going on. We already know the true story though, so to say that there's no suspense is an understatement.

Meanwhile, Hansel and Gretel continue offing the mansion's inhabitants one by one in a series of truly low-budget death sequences. In several, the effects guys clearly just made a trip to the butcher shop rather than take the more conventional route of latex and karo syrup. The most glaring example occurs when a farmer is run over by a combine and comes out the other end looking like a side of beef. There's also a scene ripped more or less straight out of Fulci's The Beyond, but without any of the artistry. To give you an idea of just how stretched for cash the filmmakers must have been, try to find a gunshot in this film that isn't dubbed. No muzzle flash, just the gunman giving the prop a little shake as a signal to the foley artist. The cast of characters is pretty varied though, and includes various sleazy farmhands, an old lady, an evil lesbian (of course) convinced she's going to make off with Solange's fortune, and this guy named Stanko:

Despite the impressive pencil moustache (or perhaps because of it), poor Stanko, like the majority of the cast, is doomed to fall prey to those ghostly kids.

Overall there are some interesting bits scattered throughout Hansel e Gretel. I found myself fixating mostly on all the things I usually do when a sleaze-fest like this fails to entertain me with conventional stuff (like a story). You can hear the old synths in the soundtrack practically dying from over a decade's use as they warble and churn their way through the score. It's not a bad thing - it actually ends up being pretty eerie. The gloomy rural Italian landscape adds some atmosphere as well. I'm trying really hard to come up with other reasons that this film isn't a total slog, because it really is better than many other films of its ilk. Maybe it's because it's so repetitive that just puts you into a lull. It sets up characters and knocks them down. Cue sallow red-eyed Italian ghost kids. Cue cheap gore. Cue synths. Rinse, repeat.

On the whole, it's forgettable stuff, but still not the worst way to kill an hour and a half. Just get used to seeing this a LOT:

*Actually proven false by Fulci's Cat in the Brain, which harvested a kill scene from this film.

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