My Favorite Cloris Leachman Performance

Cloris Leachman in “Hansel and Gretel.” Courtesy of Cannon Movie Tales.

When I first heard that the tirelessly brilliant Cloris Leachman passed away yesterday at age 94, my mind immediately flashed back to the performance that made me a lifelong fan. It wasn’t her Oscar-winning work in “The Last Picture Show,” or her legendary portrayal of Frau Blücher in “Young Frankenstein” or even her uproarious role as Phyllis in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” It was, in fact, Len Talan’s little-known 1987 adaptation of “Hansel and Gretel” which marked the first time I ever saw her. Her take on the candy-loving witch haunted my nightmares as a kid and will forever remain in my heart. Below is the review I wrote of the picture in 2014. Thank you, Cloris, for making our lives infinitely more entertaining. 

There are few things more pleasurable to behold on camera than an actor exuding the sheer joy of performance, and there are few archetypal villains that offer more palpable joy than the coveted role of a witch. Think Margaret Hamilton in “The Wizard of Oz,” Angelica Huston in “The Witches” or Bette Midler in “Hocus Pocus.” These women were clearly having a ball and their unbridled delight was infectious, to say the least. Yet few witches have cast as entrancing a spell on me as Griselda, the carnivorous old crone played to perfection by Cloris Leachman in director Len Talan’s low-budget yet rather lovely 1987 rendering of the Brother Grimm tale.

It’s somewhat surprising that this particular Grimm story, though widely known, never inspired a truly great or memorable film, though the upcoming adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel co-produced by Steven Spielberg certainly has a whiff of potential. Yet when I was a kid, I absolutely adored Talan’s film, and though it’s certainly dated and more than a little amateurish in spots, the picture still holds up remarkably well today, thanks in large part to Leachman, a spirited comedic actress who proved here that she could also be scary as hell. You don’t have to yell “Frau Blücher” to motivate a herd of horses (and any other living specimen) to run in the other direction when Griselda rears her grotesque head. 

How scary is she, you might ask? Her performance caused my sister to grow up believing there was a witch living at the end of the hallway outside her bedroom. I was lucky enough to discover the film when it aired on The Disney Channel, prior to the network’s fixation on churning out tween starlets. It was subsequently recorded on a VHS tape (currently collecting cobwebs in my parent’s house) and my sister and I watched it countless times, as if daring ourselves to sit through the creepy parts without diving behind the couch, a spot I also routinely visited whenever Large Marge showed up in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” It wasn’t until last year when I finally purchased the film on DVD that I realized just how much footage was missing from the Disney cut. The original version was much darker, edgier and a whole lot more uncompromising than the one I grew up with, and is well worth a rental for horror junkies and brave kiddies alike.

We’re informed over the opening credits that this 86-minute feature is part of “Cannon Movie Tales,” a short-lived series of bargain basement fairy tale adaptations made in the mid to late 80s. They were ultimately considered a failure, but I’m willing to argue that “Hansel and Gretel,” regardless of its budgetary shortcomings, manages to succeed in creating an atmosphere of unease and anxiety devoid of sugar-coated, Disney-fied nonsense (save for the regrettably tidy finale). Hansel (Hugh Pollard) and Gretel (Nicola Stapleton, future star of BBC’s “EastEnders”) are children who live in poverty. Their father, Stefan (David Warner), is kindly to a fault—he doesn’t have the backbone to stand up to his money-hoarding boss—which exasperates his wife, Maria (Emily Richard), to no end. Some versions of the Grimm story paint the mother as a flat-out monster, but here, Richard deftly conveys the cocktail of desperation and despair that causes her character to fly off the handle at the worst possible moment. Consider the scene where the children poke fun at her meager dinner, claiming that the soup “tastes like washwater,” thus inspiring the following response…

Stefan: “Children, go to bed.”

Maria: “Yes, go to bed, children. And if you’re lucky, you won’t wake up.”

[children leave]

Stefan: “Maria, how could you say such a thing?”

When I recently saw this scene, I was shocked for three reasons: 1. The sheer cruelty of Maria’s words, 2. How her words articulate the depths of her hopelessness, and 3. It made me realize how the Disney version was censored to the point of incoherence. Here’s how the above exchange played out in the version I grew up with (and no, I never understood it either):

Stefan: “Children, go to bed.”

Maria: “Yes, go to bed, children.”

[children leave]

Stefan: “Maria, how could you say such a thing?”

I rest my case: Disney is the wrong studio for any material considered mature (which is why I remain profoundly worried about their big-screen staging of “Into the Woods,” a musical that deflates every cliché that comprises the studio’s very foundation). Anyway, the film’s first half is essentially one long build-up to the witch’s inevitable debut, and it does a fine job of fully investing us in the protagonists’ plight. When an enraged Maria orders her disobedient children to enter the woods, the film takes on an entirely new tone. Snippets of Engelbert Humperdinck’s haunting 1893 German opera, “Hänsel und Gretel,” reverberate throughout various scenes, as if in anticipation of the terrors ahead. Less successful are the film’s awkward attempts at accompanying the music with English lyrics (Warner looks especially especially embarrassed while warbling his number, which culminates with the weary utterance, “What a life.”). Yet the songs are so misplaced that they actually enhance the film’s rather off-kilter, surrealistic tone as the children venture deeper into the haunted forest, where demonic spirits are suggested purely through the sound design, as unsettling and richly layered as the spine-tingling murmurs in “Blair Witch Project.” Angelic voices suddenly transform into vicious cackles as the children cling to one another for safety, their surroundings made visible only by the flickering of their campfire.

And then Griselda arrives. Does she ever. Disguised as a doddering but lovable granny, she seduces the starving tykes with promises of not just unending goodies in her candy shack, but maternal warmth. With full-bodied relish, Leachman single-handedly brings the film to a whole new level of liveliness as she cracks morbid jokes, sings unapologetically off-key, leers spookily into her monocle and makes odd Freudian slips while reading bedtime stories (“the fire in the kitchen flamed up and cooked the children—er, chicken”). In the film’s single-most galvanizing scene, Gretel’s serene slumber is interrupted by a frightful noise emanating from the basement. She tiptoes down the stairs and finds Griselda delivering a truly perverse incantation while walking ever so slowly around an enormous cauldron. Stapleton’s performance is at its finest here—conveying the goggle-eyed horror of Gretel’s shattered innocence. With her back turned to the girl, Griselda pauses, sniffs the air and says, “I know you’re there…” It’s a horror movie moment for the ages. 

Walking the line between uproarious satire and gruesome barbarism is no easy task, and Leachman does it masterfully. She’s admittedly better—by a cavernous margin—than the picture she’s in, but she also brings out the best in her young co-stars. I always savor the moment when Griselda sneaks up behind Gretel, now enslaved in the kitchen, and deliberately startles her, eliciting a genuinely terrified reaction from Stapleton. Older viewers may be let down by the film’s sickly sweet resolution, but for kids, it’s a perfect capper, guaranteed to prevent nightmares and cavities in equal measure. This is not a great movie, to be sure, but it’s one that has managed to stay with me all these years later, and is among the handful of cinematic gems that I love annually revisiting every time All Hallow’s Eve emerges on the orange-hued horizon. That’s gotta count for something.

“Hansel and Gretel” is currently available to purchase, rent and stream on Amazon.

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