The Fine Art of Schlock: Why Studio Kitsch Like Hansel & Gretel Tends to Be So Bad It’s…Awful

The appeal of this week's 'Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters' seems to be based in the lure of its intentionally kitsch concept - which may explain why the movie is unlikely to be a success.

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Paramount Pictures

This Friday sees the release of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, a movie that promises a grown-up version of the fairy tale characters who “have become the ultimate vigilantes, hell bent on retribution” after “getting a taste for blood as children.” Or at least that’s according to the movie’s official synopsis. As if the trailer and promo photos for the movie don’t make it clear enough, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is less a movie faithful to its source material than an excuse for a generic genre action movie that looks to be anything from Underworld through Resident Evil — or any other film fixated on guns, monsters and women wearing form-fitting leather.

True, it’s hardly the first big studio project to attempt such an awkward mashup. Hansel and Gretel follows in the footsteps of last year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which itself was spawned from 2009′s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (A novel that also gave the world Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters and Little Women and Werewolves amongst many others). You could argue that the surprise success of P&P&Z launched the genre, but that would be ignoring the little-known 2001 indie movie Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter, which arguably deserves the credit (or blame) for the [Familiar Title] + [Monster] = [Profit] formula. At this point, we may be nearing the point where we have to start adding new supernatural threats to existing horror stories to keep going. The Walking DeadMeets Frankenstein, anyone?

(MORE: Another Bite of the Poisoned Apple: Why Does Pop Culture Love Fairy Tales Again?)

Still, the box office history of this particular genre would go against Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters becoming a hit. Last year’s two Snow White movies struggled to find customers, as did the afore-mentioned Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, proving that audiences just aren’t that willing to part with hard-earned money for fantastical genre collisions. And while Jeremy Renner may potentially be a draw this time around – that whole Avengers thing offers no little amount of box office credibility, after all – when separated from Robert Downey Jr. and Joss Whedon, he seems a little less impressive. The Bourne Legacy fell well short of its prequels last year, earning less than competition like 21 Jump Street, The Vow and Hotel Transylvania. Strip away the sure-fire box office appeal and ultimately all Hansel & Gretel has going for it is the concept.

On the surface, it’s a great high concept. “What happens to Hansel and Gretel after they grew up?” is a question that poses all kinds of interesting questions that could shed light on the original fairy tale and its aftermath. However, the answer “They grew up and became action hero vigilantes, kicking magical butt and taking names” is… perhaps one of the least ambitious directions that the project could have taken. It’s precisely this mix of high-concept and lowbrow execution that forms the core of a genre Guardian movie critic Stuart Jeffries has dubbed “tiresomely schlocky zero-expectation genre flicks that… exist solely to trade on a kitschy title.” The problem with schlock – even relatively big budget schlock like Hansel & Gretel, which brings former Bond girls Gemma Arterton and Famke Janssen along for the ride – is that it all too often trades on the appeal of being “so bad, it’s good,” or being kitsch. And that’s where things get tricky.

For decades now, we’ve become used to celebrating movies that somehow exist outside of the traditional good-bad spectrum, whether by making fun of them to demonstrate our own “superior” taste or by embracing them, to demonstrate our sophisticated senses of humor and camp. People have built their own entertainment brands (and businesses) from the growing appreciation of this kind of movie, which of course invites the inevitable question: Why not try to find some way to translate these low-budget appeals into something with prominent production values, more recognizable actors, and winking self-awareness?

(MORE: 20 Movies We’re Looking Forward to in 2013 (and 5 We’re Definitely Not))

But trying to intentionally make kitsch is a tricky business — one that misses the point in any number of ways. To begin with, there’s something problematic with the notion that movies – or television, or music, or books, or any art of any kind – can really be “so bad, it’s good” in the first place; like describing things as “guilty pleasures,” it’s a false idea used to pre-emptively defend yourself against judgment from others for something that you happen to like. In a piece for Wired last year, one of the programmers for the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater, Zack Carlson, argued against the school of “SBIG” thinking. “We watch,” he wrote, “some of us snorting and smirking and shouting, ‘Bad! Bad!,’ but we do watch. And we enjoy watching. Which leads to a revolutionary, not-so-bold concept: If a movie entertains us, then it’s good.” Not “so bad it’s” good, he suggests, but genuinely good in the way that other, “better” movies are good: “The majority of us look to movies primarily for amusement and distraction,” Carlson explained, and “when a film hits both of those targets — with or without the training wheels of irony — it succeeds.”

But why does it succeed, when on so many levels it should objectively fall short? “There’s something greater at work here, a connection that we subconsciously feel to flawed films that come from persevering people of limited means, rather than from cash-hemorrhaging Hollywood studios,” Carlson suggested. What genuinely appeals about kitsch may not be the result of someone trying to create something sub-standard or with knowing camp appeal, he suggests, but the attractiveness of the unique voice that results from the fact that such movies are forced by necessity from one person’s weird and wonderful artistic vision. IFC movie critic Matt Singer agrees, writing that “Sure, you could make fun of The Room or Birdemic: Shock and Terror, but these films possess something a lot of so-called ‘better’ movies lack: deeply personal expression… That passion and go-for-broke madness give these movies a kinship with the works of great rule-breaking artists of the film canon. That’s something the ‘good’ movies cranked out by Hollywood every single week can never touch.” On some level, genuinely kitschy schlock appeals because the audience feels the people behind it. We respond to the intensity of artistic creation, whether or not the artist created in his or her original aims with the final product.

The great flaw of projects like Hansel & Gretel, then, is that they are the product of the studio system. They have been audience-tested and modified, with multiple authorial fingers in the finished cinematic pie. And it is this development and refinement process, so central to the way studio pictures are made, that ultimately robs the intentional schlock of the singular voice that it seemingly requires to become watchable schlock. Without that, all that’s left is a bad movie – something that John Wilson, founder of the Golden Raspberry Awards bemoaned last year: “The saddest thing is that over the 32 years that we’ve been doing the Razzies, original bad, like original good, has just fallen by the wayside… Ambition is being dimmed by the effort to conform. We’re not getting ecstatic bad movies very often, just boring failures.”

Some of us remain hopeful, that filmmakers with crazy concepts will continue to push the envelope. But unless Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters somehow defies the history of such studio projects to attain the status of genuine, sincere intentional kitsch — Shades of Jean Giraudoux! — all we’ll be left with is one more boring failure. A movie that aimed low and still, somehow, missed the mark.

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