Amid a post-climax flash-forward sequence during my screening of Red Riding Hood, a man in the audience loudly exclaimed, “What the heck is going on?”
Sir, allow me to venture a guess.
Red Riding Hood is based loosely on the classic folktale, but its many liberties likely can be attributed to the involvement of Catherine Hardwicke, best known for directing the first Twilight film. The script, by David Leslie Johnson (who wrote 2009’s notoriously twist-laden Orphan), seems no more than a simple launching point for the careers of new teen idols, a la Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart.
In Riding Hood’s case, the already-established Amanda Seyfried (doe-eyed and fair-skinned to embody the role of heroine Valerie) snags not one, but two spankin’-new leading men. Our story’s poor woodcutter and childhood sweetheart Peter is played by Shiloh Fernandez, and the rich man who wedges a stake between their romance is her betrothed, Henry (Max Irons, son of legendary actor Jeremy Irons). Valerie protests the arranged union, claiming she hardly knows Henry — although in a village roughly the size of a New York City bodega, you have to wonder how that’s possible. Both men vie for Valerie’s attentions, without much explanation given as to why, creating the baseless subtext that drives the film’s drama.
The plot centers on Daggerhorn, a medieval town plagued for generations by the bloodlust of a vicious wolf. Although the villagers have long lived in terror, we’re told they’re able to satiate the beast with monthly sacrificial offerings of their finest livestock. But the good townfolk are quickly jolted into action by the mauling death of Valerie’s sister, an act that apparently signifies the wolf has “broken the peace” established by decades of full moon-lit pig and goat feasts.
There are many familiar faces among the cast – namely, Virginia Madsen (who plays Valerie’s mother Suzette), Billy Burke (settling comfortably into “father” typecasting, as evidenced by his turn as Bella Swan’s dad in Twilight, and here as Valerie’s pops Cesaire), Julie Christie (in the storied role of grandmother) and Lukas Haas (as town priest Auguste). But no one rises above the mediocre scripting to prove even remotely impactful, aside from Gary Oldman, who embodies wolf hunter Father Solomon – called upon by the desperate townspeople – in a gloriously campy way that suggests the rest of the actors (and the director) didn’t receive the memo about the film’s potential to be tongue-in-cheek fun.
Father Solomon’s substantial entrance — a metal-plated carriage flanked with crossbow-bearing bodyguards and followed by a caravan of effects that include a life-sized silver elephant statue — comes on the heels of a wolf-slaying quest organized by the men of Daggerhorn (among them, Valerie’s warring suitors competing to assert their manhood). Solomon sagely advises that the mission’s bittersweet outcome, which results in the death of Henry’s father as well as the would-be wolf, is all for naught, as the villain they seek will reappear in human form once killed, like any good werewolf. This is our first hint that Daggerhorn’s true enemy is not the stuff of nature, but of legend.
The figure-morphing phenomenon blindsides the townsfolk, and the result of Solomon’s expositional speech is one of denial-based merriment. The Daggerhornians refuse to heed the warning of a man who claims, in a Transylvanian-esque accent shared by no other character, that he was forced to kill his wife after discovering she was a werewolf (perhaps thanks to the fact that he flaunts her curiously preserved severed hand to prove it). Instead, they take to the town square to frolic like maddened, mask-wearing, hip-gyrating, alcohol-swigging people possessed. That is, until the werewolf crashes the party. No one much protests when Solomon places everyone on lockdown, illustrating the rotation of the current “blood moon” (using a comically oversized metal contraption wheeled in by his servants), which signifies that they’re amid a one-week period when the werewolf’s bite won’t kill its victim, it’ll turn him.
This is the point where the plot devolves into a maelstrom of intrigue, suspicion, a confession of almost-incest (I kid you not), accusation and a love triangle on par with a bargain-bin Regency romance novel.
That being said: Will the female young-adult set love this? Yes. Yes, they will. All the hormone-induced, ultra-dramatic, waywardly sentimental elements of Hardwicke’s hit Twilight are accounted for. Her trademark slow-mo love scenes, damsel in distress, synth-soundtracked pacing and locker pin-up-quality male eye candy are present in full effect. And they’ll be thrilled to bits to find that the sexual innuendo factor is upped twofold from the tease-tastic Twilight. Where Bella and Edward strain even to kiss, Valerie and Peter engage in some serious dirty dancing, a full-blown thrown-against-a-wall, legs-wrapped-around-abdomen make-out session (causing Henry to groan, “I could eat you up” – pervy!), and an especially steamy cleavage-laden almost-sex scene backlit appropriately by a roaring fire.
The schoolgirl thrills and suspension of disbelief enjoyed by aforementioned target audience being an admittedly limited (and naive) one, let me attempt to explain why this film doesn’t quite work for the rest of us world-weary folk.
Our leading lady is flawed, to say the least. Suggestions regarding her strength of mind and body are thrown about: Apparently she’s able to sacrifice a rabbit as a young child — we don’t see it; she can also cut down trees — again, not something we witness. But beyond the random stashing of a knife into her stocking (later removed, erotically, by a man, to be put to actual use), she wanders ineffectively about the outskirts of each scene, appearing displeased and utterly clueless. We’re not offered much in the way of her personality, aside from her repeating sayings she learned from her mother and grandmother. I suppose, though, growing up with sentiments like, “Don’t talk to strangers, go get water, come straight home,” and “All sorrows are less with bread,” a girl’s not going to be especially unique. Valerie’s lack of savvy, intelligence or any depth leads one to wonder why Peter and Henry are so enamored with her in the first place.
And let’s also consider the believability factor of Daggerhorn. The town and surrounding woods are tragically set-like (with gothic spikes thrown onto trees, for extra-confusing German Expressionist measure), the costumes are ill-fitting and generally look to be stolen from the set of a high-school play, and the townsfolk are far from grizzled in appearance (last I checked, razors and pomade weren’t around in medieval times). Most disconcerting is Peter’s painfully modern faux-hawk, which raises the filmmaker’s agenda on display in ultra-hold gel. We get it: You’re lining him up to be the next RPattz. None of this would be so awful if the movie knew how campy it looks, going the route of, say, an Evil Dead. But, as evidenced by the sweeping vista shots (which seem to be where most of the film’s budget was pooled), this flick takes itself deadly serious.
The most memorably awful scene transpires between Valerie’s hot-tempered hunks, in their attempt to hatch an escape plan amid smoldering stares and chiseled brows strained toward perfect lighting. Peter spouts unconvincingly to Henry, “If you are the wolf, I will chop off your head!” Pause. Henry replies (with the rhythmic intonation of someone reading straight from a script), “… And I will do the same to you!” The failed zinger is bad enough, but the stoic sentiment fueling it proves far more terrifying than any impending werewolf attack. Again, only Oldman manages to breathe some cheesy fun into the material (his delivery of the term “harlot’s robe” resulted in one of my few genuine laughs).
Lastly, Red Riding Hood is billed as a fantasy-horror film. I can confirm, as someone especially susceptible to tension and jump scares, there are exactly zero moments in the movie that warrant vexation. This is mainly due to Hardwicke’s directing style. She soundtracks her film with pervasive, heavy-handed synth music in an attempt to create flow (really, this simply desensitizes the viewer in that it doesn’t allow one to absorb other sound elements), then smatters in transitions and tension with the dramatically loud opening and closing of doors and windows. What follows these moments is a silence that most other filmmakers would use for a jump scare, but which Hardwicke leaves well enough alone. The technique makes for something of a “crying wolf” style of false menace, with no truly terrifying reveal coming to fruition.
All of this results in Red Riding Hood proving wholly laughable in its shortcomings. Sadly, the Big Bad Wolf isn’t what the majority of audiences should be afraid of – it’s the imminent letdown ushered by being in on the joke.
Red Riding Hood opens Friday.
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