Once a well-worn morality tale of frightening solitude and predatory sexuality (read the original French version in which the girl disrobes before getting into the wolf's bed), the folktale Little Red Riding Hood has evolved into a female empowerment story and has long abandoned the original ending which finds the innocent little girl outsmarted and eaten by a tricky wolf. Walt Disney long ago assured us that all fairy tales end happily and usually with a fair young man waiting to romantically seal the deal. With the first Twilight saga installment, former indie filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke positioned herself as a go-to filmmaker for schmaltzy conservative teen romances set in paranormal realms. Having de-fanged vampires, she now sets her sights on the classic tale of Red Riding Hood.
The medieval village of Daggerhorn is beset by nightly werewolf attacks during the rare occurrence of a week-long "blood moon." Normally, if one is slain by the wolf under a normal moon, they remain dead; under this sinister orange moon, they too will become a cursed werewolf. The town is gearing up for battle after one of their young women is killed; she is the sister of Valerie (Amanda Seyfreid), the loveliest maid in the village. Valerie has been betrothed to Abercrombie & Fitch model Henry the blacksmith (Max Irons) in an arranged marriage, but carries on a secret courtship with the brooding, Edward-like Peter (Shiloh Fernandez). (I don't want to know what he is using for hair gel to maintain that rockin' modern style in medieval times.) The young ladies will love this overheated subplot, but sneering and distant gazes in place of acting keep the relationships at a superficial level – I don't foresee too many "Team Henry"/"Team Peter" camps splitting off.
By pandering to her constituency of panting adolescents, Hardwicke has taken a plot ripe for adult crossover appeal in the vein of Bram Stoker's Dracula or Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow and reduced the impact with silly cops to modern, gossipy behavior (in particular a seductive girl-girl dance meant to drive Peter crazy) and the plight of a teen girl in love is given equal credence to a monster slaughtering an entire village. Thankfully, Gary Oldman adds a dash of camp and swagger as Fr. Solomon: werewolf hunter with nifty silver-gilded fingernails. His Eminence arrives in grand style as the legendary slayer who even had to take out his own wife when she experienced the change. He's the brutal guy bent on sacrificing witches and even his own men in the age-old Capt. Ahab/Van Helsing/Dr. Loomis role. Oldman is brilliant but he brings the only moments of humor and fun to a self-serious movie.
Fueled by Fr. Solomon's mania, the middle section of the picture is the most successful. He leads an inquisition of Daggerhorn's citizens, employing some sinister medieval techniques like the cast-iron bull which houses its victim above a roaring fire and a creepy metal wolf mask reserved for a special occasion. Oldman relishes the meaty role which allows him to play tricks, leer at women, and bellow his lines to the heavens. Solomon's presence finally draws out the monster, leading to a few spectacular bouts of action and some gruesome loss of limbs and lives, though the special effect of the wolf itself is sufficient at best; when the beast begins to mentally communicate with Valerie it all becomes laughable.
In direct contrast to Oldman's bombast, Seyfreid's thankless task as the titular hooded heroine is to imbue Valerie with a purpose beyond being a fetish object for her pursuers. Though the lead in this naughty school play, she is missing from many of its key scenes, and still in need of a male hero to rescue her in the end.
I thought that the projector was out of focus as the film began, but it was only the "Barbra Streisand" soft focus trick. Barring that, the movie's real saving grace is in the fantastic art direction, particularly the imposing gothic grandeur of Grandmother's house. Yes, there is a grandmother, played with flinty secretiveness by living legend Julie Christie.
Since most of the mystery hinges on a question of "which character has lupine tendencies?" the climactic reveal should be a key moment, but no one will be surprised once the secret is casually brought to light. Still, if the choice is between this and the truly sophomoric Beastly, Red Riding Hood delivers enough atmospherics and engaging action to please a general audience.
Rating: TWO BONES
Release Date: March 11th, 2011
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Billy Burke, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, and Virginia Madsen
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Writer: David Leslie Johnson