It’s the stuff of urban legend. A deeply disturbing, ultra-low-budget version of Hansel and Gretel directed by horror legend Tim Burton airs on Disney Channel late one Halloween night, never to be seen again except on worn-out VHS tapes and, eventually, the internet. The only way it would ever be seen again would be if its young director somehow became one of the most famous filmmakers on earth — and what are the odds of that?
Even without that context, it feels like an unreliable memory, perhaps of a dream. I’ve watched it twice now, and I’m still not sure what I’ve seen. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are giving you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimonies of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal.
It was, in fact, Burton’s first live action film, following his first completed animated short, Vincent, released the same year. (Some sources list Hansel and Gretel’s release date as 1983, but you know what, ‘82’s our Year of the Month so that’s the date we’re going with.) It’s a strange glimpse into an unfiltered, DIY version of the Burton aesthetic, miles away from the sanitized, Disneyfied, Hot Topicized version. He says, “Everything, especially early on, was based on drawings,” and Hansel and Gretel is the closest adaptation of his scratchy, off-kilter artwork. Very pointedly, his credit says “Designed and directed by Tim Burton.”
I normally don’t bother with movies I can only find in low-resolution – no matter how good the movie itself might be, I always feel like I could use the same time to watch another movie I can actually see, and that I should wait until I can watch the low-quality film in a format that won’t bias me against it. None of that applies to Hansel and Gretel. Because of that urban-legend quality, it somehow wouldn’t feel right to watch it without VHS tracking marks and mismatched, fuzzy colors. As you press play and see the rolling static obscure the credits, it’s hard not to feel like you’re watching the video from The Ring.
But then, maybe Hansel and Gretel doesn’t need the help. It’s already unsettling before anything actually frightening happens: it opens with spare shots of the father’s blank, white toy shop, with no sound except the minimalist, frequently off-key piano score, the buzzing of the VHS tape, and occasional noises of the toys’ machinery working. Many of these toys have Burton’s trademark wide, dead eyes that always seem to be staring right at you, and they’re lit by harsh, bright light that casts long shadows behind them.
Another level of weirdness appears when we meet Hansel, Gretel, and their parents. In this adaptation of the German fairy tale, the cast is made up entirely of non-professional Japanese actors. It’s a casting decision that’s all the stranger for rarely being remarked on (the less said about Burton’s attempts to add bits of “Japanese culture” to the story, the better). Burton cites the Godzilla films as an influence, and he seems to be thinking especially of the off-putting strangeness of the acting in the dubbed version. Just listen to Andy Lee as Hansel describing the Gingerbread House: “It looks like a face! It’s got teeth!” The most memorable performance comes from the cross-dressing Michael Yama as both the mother and the witch, who dials up both characters’ childish cruelty into something past comedy, past horror, into some weird realm of nightmare camp. Despite this, Burton manages to find moving moments of genuine emotion too, like the father putting on a puppet show for his children after their mother’s trapped them in the attic.
The film really kicks into high gear when it enters the Gingerbread House. The “real world” up to that point has clearly been anything but, but Burton goes even wilder putting his own twisted twist on these iconic fairy tale images. The house itself is an indelible image, hunched and dripping and apparently on the verge of either melting or toppling over. Burton takes everything appealing about most versions of the house and makes it sickening. As Hansel and Gretel break open the perfectly clean, white exterior it bleeds sickeningly garish-colored goo like the toxic waste from the Axis Chemicals sequence of Burton’s Batman. (And that’s not even getting into the chunky pink viscera a face-shaped window vomits up as the house burns down.) For the witch herself, Burton comes up with a reinvention of a done-to-death character so unique I’m shocked no one’s tried to copy it. She’s got the trademark Burton pallor with dark Morpheus glasses and a candy cane for a nose.
There’s more horrors to come, and they must have traumatized any child unlucky enough to have stayed up late enough to watch it that late Halloween night. Gretel sinks into her marshmallow bed while long, tentacle-like candy-striped arms with long, clawlike fingers burst through the ceiling to abduct Hansel. They drop him down a chute into a prison cell where Dan-Dan the Gingerbread Man demands that Hansel eat him alive. David Koenigsberg’s performance is deeply disturbing, jackknifing between pushy passive-aggression and angrily barking demands, even when there’s nothing left of him but a disembodied head. The character’s design is even more horrible, all huge, bulging eyes and row after row of tiny teeth. Any time he enters the frame before you’re ready qualifies as an all-time jump scare. There’s shapes of things to come too: Dan-Dan’s spat out by a mouth that resembles one of Beetlejuice’s sandworms, which in turn hangs from a combination crib mobile/circus tent like the one Beetlejuice himself wears as a hat in the climax.
Three years later, Burton would break out into the big leagues with his first feature film, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Since then, his profile and his budgets only got bigger and bigger. But even if he’d been lost to history, Hansel and Gretel would still be worth unearthing as a singular glimpse into a deeply cracked mind.