Red Riding Hood is a collection of ideas that aren’t bad in and of themselves. Director Catherine Hardwicke, who helmed the first film in the Twilight franchise and turned Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart into mega-stars, attempted to recapture some of that hot spooky teen box office magic with a hip horror spin on a familiar story that was part murder mystery, part sexy thriller, and part angsty drama. The problem is, Red Riding Hood only addresses these ideas on a superficial level, and doesn’t actually do the work to pull any of them off. What’s left is an embarrassing jumble of late aughts tropes and music video direction adding up to one extremely lame werewolf picture.
The film takes place in the village of Daggerhorn, nestled somewhere between Fairy Tale Land and Old Timey Whitefolksia. The villagers have a handshake agreement with a local werewolf to regularly leave livestock out overnight for it to eat; in exchange, the werewolf will not murder the shit out them. But the werewolf suddenly breaks the truce one day by killing Lucie (Alexandria Maillot), the older sister of our main character Valerie (Amanda Seyfried). The village priest, Father Auguste (Lukas Hass, aka the kid from Witness), sends for badass monster hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) to come sort out Daggerhorn’s werewolf problem. The only problem is, Father Solomon is the kind of zealot the Inquisition would’ve sent to lead a Bible study in Jonestown, and I’m pretty sure by the end of the film he has killed more of the villagers than the actual werewolf. After many scenes of throbbing angst between Valerie and her two wooden suitors, the werewolf finally reveals itself to be Valerie’s father, Cesaire (Billy Burke). Valerie teams up with one of her meatball fuckbois to vanquish him, and lives happily ever after in the house where her grandmother was eaten to death by her drunk, cursed father. Also her boyfriend is a werewolf now, so their kids are gonna be weird.
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There’s admittedly a lot to absorb in that paragraph, but for now let’s focus on exactly how much any of those words have to do with the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The answer is “virtually nothing,” which leads directly into the first major issue I have with this movie – Why in the Black Forest diarrhea steam is it called Red Riding Hood? Valerie wears a bright red cloak, sure, but so does Elliott in E.T., and his wardrobe choice didn’t affect the title of that film. Also, Valerie is the only person in all of Daggerhorn who wears a color other than brown, black, or white, and her cloak dramatically changes size throughout the movie; in one scene it’s standard garment length, and in another it’s so long she could use it to hoist Dr. Jones out of the Well of Souls.
The movie’s only other connection to the famous story is the fact that Valerie has a grandmother who lives outside of the village, so she has to travel through the forest to visit her. Also, Valerie counts her grandmother among the list of possible suspects, which leads to a trippy dream sequence in which she and her increasingly wolfed-out Nana recite the “What big eyes you have” scene. But beyond that, the movie might has well have been titled Werewolf Politics, which would have at least given people a better idea of what to expect when they bought a ticket. You might even sell more tickets that way; I would’ve bought out an entire row of seats for me and my loved ones to attend a midnight screening of Werewolf Politics without seeing a single trailer.
So Red Riding Hood can only be described as a loose adaptation of the notoriously grim fairy tale. While that’s admittedly disappointing for people who went in expecting to see some interesting new takes on the story, it doesn’t automatically make it a failure as a werewolf movie. No, several other factors are to blame for that ignoble distinction, chief among them being the movie is too obsessed with trying to emulate the success of Twilight to construct a satisfying murder mystery. Instead, Red Riding Hood dedicates most of its brief 90 minute runtime to Valerie pining over two useless boys. We are told they are separate characters several times, but in actuality there is almost no discernable difference between them.
First there’s Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), a rugged trapper who has been in love with Valerie since they were both young children sneaking off to kill small animals. This is 100% a scene in the movie, performed by two child actors who were clearly instructed to give each other the 9-year-old’s equivalent of bedroom eyes. Peter is dressed like goth Peter Pan in these flashbacks, which only serves to make the whole situation feel even more vaguely felonious. It is the most uncomfortable I have ever felt in a theater, including the time I fell down the stairs at a magic show in front of all my friends and had to go home early.
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Anyway, Peter grows up to be one of the most absurd characters I have ever seen in any movie. He’s dressed like he’s about to give a book report on Dracula. His extremely modern haircut is elegantly disheveled, and he glowers around Daggerhorn like he just got into a fight with his dad about going to art school. Neither the actor nor the film makes any effort to hide the fact that Peter is a dude from the 21st century, to the point where you could be forgiven for expecting a third act reveal in which Peter shows Valerie his time machine.
Valerie’s second love interest is a big lanky dope named Henry (Max Irons), the village blacksmith. Valerie has been betrothed to Henry in an arranged marriage, despite the fact that they’ve never really met and they don’t seem to be particularly attracted to each other. In some ways, Henry is an even worse character than Peter – he has negative chemistry with Valerie and no discernable wants beyond whatever the movie needs him to do to advance the plot in a given scene. But the filmmakers decided Red Riding Hood needed a love triangle to tap into that Twilight juice, so that means the audience has to watch Henry, the avatar of anticharisma, wander aimlessly through the movie. The problem is, we never feel any romantic tension. Valerie only ever shows any affection for Peter; the only reason she even considers marrying Henry is because he’s basically a good guy and she feels bad about rejecting her obligation to him (even though it wasn’t her decision in the first place). However, there’s never any doubt as to which one of these jabronis she’s going to end up with; one of the first things the film establishes is that Valerie and Peter are childhood sweethearts who spend most of their days mooncalfing over each other. At least Twilight took the time to make it somewhat believable that Bella could end up with Jacob. Henry never has a chance, and doesn’t even really seem like he wants one.
The murder mystery is slightly less bungled than the love triangle. Red Riding Hood does a commendable job of presenting us with a dizzying number of possible suspects, and the ultimate reveal of Cesaire as the killer wolf is a decent misdirect. But the movie’s focus is so unevenly split between its various masters that Valerie’s interest in solving the mystery varies drastically from scene to scene. One moment she’s studying every face in the village to see who shares the werewolf’s brown eyes, and the next she’s indulging in a lengthy internal monologue over which cute boy she should smooch. Consequently, the audience is only really given two clues to chew on, one of which doesn’t arrive until minutes before the climax. It’s possible to guess who the werewolf is, but the movie gives us so little to work with that it essentially boils down to keeping track of which characters seem to vanish whenever the wolf appears. That doesn’t make for a very satisfying mystery, but the producers of Red Riding Hood were apparently so worried about spoilers that they took the truly incredible precaution of deleting the final chapter from the film’s official novelization to keep the ending a secret. People who bought the book were given a website address they could visit after the film’s release in order to read the missing pages, which is sort of like getting improv tickets for your birthday. I am honestly not sure which fact is more staggering – that the makers of Red Riding Hood thought they had to guard the film’s finale like a Star Wars movie, or that people actually exchanged money to experience Red Riding Hood in book form.
Even if the story is terrible, a werewolf movie at least leaves open the possibility of seeing some righteous werewolf violence. Sadly, Red Riding Hood clings to its PG-13 rating for dear life, doing everything in its power to appeal to teenagers looking for a mildly entertaining way to kill two hours. As a result, the violence is all weirdly bloodless. Dead bodies appear bizarrely peaceful, as if the werewolf is sneaking around poisoning people’s tea. There’s also conspicuously no transformation scene, a hallmark of werewolf movies and the brass ring of special effects artists looking to test their skills and show off what they can do. And finally, the werewolf itself is dull, a fully digital creation that only appears in a few scenes and just kind of looks like a big dog during the brief time it is onscreen.
Red Riding Hood is a mystifying film. It’s undeniably a compelling artifact of filmmaking in the late 2000s, but considering I was firmly in my 20s back then, it’s a period of pop culture for which I feel no nostalgia. It does feature Gary Oldman doing what can only be described as A Whole Ass Thing; he hambones his way through the film projecting slimy menace and brandishing a lethal set of silver fingernails, which prove to be far more effective against the werewolf than they have any right to be. And for some inexplicable reason, Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the film’s producers. According to an interview with Hardwicke, it was important to DiCaprio that the werewolf be “a bad ass” and behave like a gangster. Neither of those ideas made their way into Red Riding Hood, but I’m holding out hope that I will one day buy an entire row of seats to the midnight showing of Badass Gangster Werewolf starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
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