Red Riding Hood

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“Little Red Riding Hood,” like many fairy tales, is a dark and gruesome story that ought to traumatize children more than it does. If some savvy filmmaker wanted to emphasize that side of it, really bring out the horror, maybe even make the wolf into a werewolf, establish some Gothic romance to balance the supernatural elements — well, that would be a fine thing to do. Someone should do that.

Someone other than Catherine Hardwicke, I mean. This thing she made, called “Red Riding Hood,” is a dumb mess, stylish but ludicrous. Hamstrung from the outset by David Leslie Johnson’s (“Orphan”) cheesy screenplay, Hardwicke makes things worse with a self-serious tone that’s outrageously at odds with the material’s inherent frivolity. For you see, this is more than just a fantasy tale set in the Middle Ages in a tiny village near a dark forest. It’s also a soap opera! With forbidden passions and love triangles and everything! Hardwicke directed “Twilight,” you’ll recall, and would apparently like to continue directing it, over and over again.

Red Riding Hood ain’t little anymore, y’all! (I assume this is like when Li’l Bow Wow became just Bow Wow.) She’s not even Red Riding Hood. She has a NAME, you know. It’s Valerie. Played by the winsome Amanda Seyfried, Valerie is the daughter of a humble woodcutter (Billy Burke) and is betrothed to Henry (Max Irons), the son of a wealthy blacksmith. (Wealthy by 14th-century peasant standards, anyway. Everyone still lives in their own filth.) She is in love, however, with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), a humble woodcutter who loves her dearly in return. Valerie’s mother (Virginia Madsen) tells her love is irrelevant, and that arranged marriages are the way to go. She wasn’t in love with Valerie’s father when she married him, either, and now they are very happy together, allegedly.

As if this weren’t enough drama for one teenage girl’s life, Valerie must also contend with the fact that her village is occasionally terrorized by a werewolf. The villagers have kept the peace for 20 years by following certain rules, but now the truce has been broken and the werewolf is a-killin’ folks again. The villagers will not stand for this! Devout Catholics, they bring in Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), a clergyman who has tangled with werewolves before. Arriving in a huge bronze elephant for some reason, Father Solomon informs these rubes that their werewolf doesn’t live out in the forest full-time, like some common wolf. Don’t be stupid. When the moon isn’t full, the beast is a regular man or woman. In all likelihood, it is someone WHO LIVES IN THIS VERY VILLAGE!!

Well, let me tell you. If you want to stir up a crowd of superstitious bumpkins, tell them one of their neighbors is a werewolf. Some scoff, some believe, some panic, some make accusations, and some get ripped apart when the werewolf comes charging through town that night. Oh, and it’s worse this time: According to Father Solomon, it’s currently a “blood moon,” so anyone the werewolf bites will become a werewolf too, instead of simply dying. So, you know, avoid the werewolf in general, but especially this week.

Two threads of conflict are thus established: Valerie must find a way to be with her true love, and the villagers must determine who the werewolf is and kill that person. Valerie gets accused of being a witch, too, after it’s discovered that for some reason she can understand the werewolf when it talks to her. Weird enough that the werewolf wants to pause from its slaughter of the innocent and have a conversation, let alone that a non-werewolf can comprehend its language. Did the werewolf know Valerie had this ability, or has it been going around trying to talk to everyone and just now finally got a response? I’m worried that this werewolf is lonely.

Oh, Valerie does have a grandmother (Julie Christie) who gives her a red riding hood, but that’s pretty insignificant compared to the other stuff that’s going on.

Speaking of Valerie’s grandmother, here is something that somebody says in this movie: “He thought the smell came from your grandmother!”

If you want to know another thing that somebody says in this movie, it is, “Lock him up! In the elephant!” Whereupon someone is indeed locked up in the bronze elephant that Solomon brought with him, providing an answer to the previously implied question of why Solomon brought a bronze elephant with him.

Valerie’s forbidden romance with the “bad boy” Peter is played for maximum melodrama, and Peter and Henry compete for Valerie’s affections as if they were characters in a Harlequin novel. In that respect, the movie knows which side its bread is buttered on, i.e., the teenage girl side. But the fantasy/horror elements hang over everything else like a fog, growing sillier and sillier as the plot unfolds, even as Hardwicke and her stone-faced cast continue to be very serious about everything. (If ever there was a time to camp it up, Gary Oldman, this would have been it.) The movie wants to feel like a romantic drama AND a supernatural thriller, but instead it feels like neither. What it probably needed was a vampire.

D+ (1 hr., 40 min.; PG-13, some very mild innuendo, monster-related violence and terror, nothing very graphic.)

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