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Gaze not too long into Hansel’s eyes, lest Hansel’s eyes gaze also into you – Hansel and Gretel

September 13, 2013

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In filmed puppetry and stop-motion animation there’s a fine line between whimsy and nigh-unspeakable creepiness. The eponymous ape in the original King Kong? Great. The elves, reindeer, bearded prospectors and bumbles of Rudolph’s Christmastime classic? Magical. The stone-faced cast of Gerry Anderson’s colorful Captain Scarlet? A little off-putting, but the closing theme song more than makes up for it.

And then you come to something like the 1954 stop-motion film Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy. And you look into the eyes of its titular protagonists. And you know what it is to experience true terror.

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Marionettes, puppets and stop-motion figurines are never going to be lifelike enough to trigger the “uncanny valley” reaction, an instinctual revulsion to things unhuman yet too close to human. Yet the repulsive qualities of those weird-ass human robots that are always being rolled out in Japan for no damn reason whatsoever — they pale in comparison to the nightmare cordwood of the supposedly family-friendly Hansel and Gretel film. The pointless Japanese mechas are like finding a cockroach scurrying in front of you on a city sidewalk. You think “Ew, that’s gross” and move on. The other is like having Cthulhu looming over you, ready to devour your eternal soul.

These. Things. Are. Creepy.

For those in this new millennium unfamiliar with this old-timey work of cinematic wonder, don’t feel stupid — I was equally ignorant before stumbling on the comic adaptation, whose phobic cover you see above. It was a long-in-gestation labor of love on the part of its creators, an endeavor decades in the making. This was the golden age of animation, the era in which Disney formed the bedrock of its reputation for content creation. Released by RKO Radio Pictures, Hansel was a shot against the bow of that hegemony, and producer Michael Myerberg milked its publicity for all the (self-)promotion it was worth. And the film had its edge. It was based not so much on the sibling fairy tale itself, but an operatic adaptation of the same by Engelbert Humperdinck (an emeritus member of the global All-Name Team). The combination of animation and opera was (and is) avant-garde, and has to be commended for its cultural transcendence. Also: EAT THAT, FANTASIA.

But those puppets/dolls/whatever…

You can watch a behind-the-scenes featurette on the creation of the virtual cast and marvel at the care and craft that went into them and the sets in which they moved, bit by bit — at the same time that you claw your cheeks raw in abject horror:

The grisly animatronic monstrosity glimpsed at the beginning of that clip is Rosina Rubylips, the gingerbread house witch so keen on making kid stew. She looks like Madam, but 100% more frightening (the lack of a hand up her ass elevates the menace). You wonder if you wouldn’t need an elaborate, blessed set of ancient knives to kill such an abomination, like Gregory Peck with Damien at the end of The Omen. Yes, the Seven Sacred Daggers of Tel Megiddo are all that stands between us and Rosina Rubylips roasting our spirits in Hell.

There’s an old episode of the horror anthology Tales from the Darkside called “The Geezenstacks,” based on a short story of the same name. It has creepy little dolls in it. It’s quite possibly the scariest episode of a supposedly scary series that wasn’t all that scary on average. They have nothing on Hansel and Gretel and their fellows. They are trumped, outclassed, and sent packing. These things will kill you in your sleep.

And then there’s the comic, which, apart from the cover and a few stills inside, is a fear-free adaptation of the adaptation of the adaptation. First, the stills — please note that the father looks like Jimmy Stewart, and the mother like the alien at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind:

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The comic book is, as you might imagine, scrubbed of the film’s musical elements, though text and floating notes do mix on occasion, as they do here:

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And dear, sweet Rosina looks a tad less freakish, though she still has a certain squished Poopdeck Pappy elan about her:

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You half expect Thumper to be among the comic’s woodland critters. Considering the respective corporate origins, there’s some irony in that.

The film had its theatrical run, but found added life with repeated television broadcasts. Indeed, it would become somewhat of a Christmastime television staple — which means The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus has competition in the “Oddest and Most Off-Putting Christmastime Special” category — and it was on television that it cultivated its nostalgic fanbase. I admit that my total loathing of the monstrosities in this flick is a personal thing, and not applicable to the general population. Hansel has its devotees, befitting status as a cult classic. You only have to go here and scroll down to the comments to see how enthusiastic some people are about the film (and get some added context on the production). When comments on blog posts read like back-of-the-book testimonials, you know? Again: The craft is magnificent.

Here’s my own testimonial to the puppets: When I had the comic laying on my desk. I had to put a sheet of paper over the Hansel and Gretel’s faces. Or I wouldn’t have been able to sleep that night.

There’s only a crappy version of the original print available on DVD, and you can see the whole film on YouTube. Do so at your own peril.

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