Sunday, February 22, 2015

World of Witchcraft: HANSEL AND GRETEL (1990)

In the late '80s and early '90s legendary Italian horror director Lucio Fulci made several smaller films, many for TV. None of them top his earlier efforts, but most are fun on their own terms and have something to offer other than the usual run-of-the-mill cliches. In addition to the films he wrote and directed, he "presented" three films, Mario Bianchi's MURDER SECRET (1988), Leandro Lucchetti's BLOODY PSYCHO (1989) and this, veteran screenwriter Giovanni Simonelli's only directorial credit. Shot for television (though I have not been able to confirm this) in Italian, HANSEL AND GRETEL is one of the more obscure of Fulci's horror credits.

Set in modern day, two children named Hansel and Gretel are kidnapped by a gang of thugs who throw the kids into a black Mercedes and after endless driving shots take them to a farm house where the car has somehow turned into a silver BMW along the way! Once inside we discover that the farm house is a front for a kidnapping ring in which children are unwilling organ donors for a surgeon who lost his practice due to one too many martini lunches and has set up an operating room in the basement. Once the kids have given up their squishy bits, their bodies are buried in the farm yard. Yep, that's right, the kids are killed, gutted and dumped in a shallow grave right in the beginning of the film. Simonelli's got some balls, I'll give him that.

So what would Hansel and Gretel do if they hadn't managed to stuff the witch into the oven? Why they would have to come back from the dead of course! Accompanied by the sound of children singing, their ghostly forms pop up out of nowhere to either scare one of the criminals into killing themselves or psychically controlling random implements of death. The first guy meets his gristly fate via some sort of farm machinery (can you tell I'm city folk?), while others are immolated, shot, boiled and chopped up under a paddle wheel. Never mind that people at the house are claiming to hear children singing eerily before each of the deaths, the cops chalk it up to a gangland killing and presumably wander off to find a good espresso.

While working on a separate case of corruption, police detective Silvia (Elisabete Pimenta Boaretto), discovers that the two cases are linked. When the main suspect in the corruption case, Solange (Brigitte Christensen), ends up dead in her swimming pool while she was in the middle of dictating. Possessing a keen detective instinct, Sylvia's partner listens to the recording which not only includes the woman's screams, but also the incidental music on the soundtrack of the film itself! And you thought alleged security camera footage that simply is footage taken from the film, complete with multiple edits and angles, was the height of cinematic laziness. Hell, Simonelli could have recorded the screams on the very same tape recorder in the movie and played it back in the scene.

Of course Sylvia has decided that the best way catch the singing killer is to actually move in to the criminals' spare bedroom! Seriously. In one scene they have her yawning and coming down stairs for a morning cup of coffee. No wonder there is so much crime in Italy. This eventually leads to Sylvia's discovery of the organ harvesting ring and the ghosts of the titular children. Her boss (Maurice Poli), of course, thinks this is just plain pazzo and pats her on the shoulder and tells her she's a good cop.

The dialogue also has some inspired moments. When Sylvia is grilling Solange's husband saying that Solange was involved in a kidnapping ring, the husband snaps and yells "you are talking about a dead person!" Cops can be so rude when investigating a homicide. In another scene when the ghosts of Hansel and Gretel appear before her for no apparent reason, she tells them "You are the children they killed! They shouldn't have done that, they were very naughty." Yes, all the kidnapping child murderers should get a good spanking and be sent to their rooms without supper.

Clearly strapped for cash (the generic looking credits have no music or audio at all), Simonelli tries to inject some style on the directing front, but it ultimately undermines the great potential. The idea of a modern day Hansel and Gretel story combined with an illegal organ harvesting ring and revenge from beyond the grave is pretty damn cool. Unfortunately, aside from the low-rent production values, there is the acting. I have seen a lot of bad acting in my day, but I think this one rules them all. The cast is generally terrible, but Boaretto's attempt at being a cop is so wooden that she makes John Kerry look like Bobcat Goldthwait. Clearly cast for her exotic looks, along with a dialogue exchange in the beginning where we find out that her father was an Italian cop and her mother a Brazilian woman, Boaretto sleepwalks through every single frame that she is in. Even though I cannot find a single reference to Boaretto other than in connection with this film, it is thuddingly obvious that this is her first and only attempt at acting. At times it is glaringly apparent that she is making a conscious effort to hit her marks (probably due to off-camera direction). Other times it appears as if she is phonetically reading her lines off of cue cards.

In spite of the multitude of flaws, the movie is not without entertainment. You have to watch it on its own terms, in a forgiving state of mind, but the script has a lot of great ideas and it takes its subject matter seriously, instead of making it intentionally campy and jokey. That counts for quite a lot in my book.

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