Red Riding Hood

It was assumed when the Twilight novels and movies took over the universe, that we would be inundated with similar works of weepy, melodramatic teen supernatural romance. While that may have been the case in literature — assisted no doubt by the fact that self-publishing for e-book readers means anyone with enough determination to finish a book could get it published and sold on Amazon — the same thing didn’t really happen in film. There was a similar unfulfilled expectation when Harry Potter was the king of the hill, and we all assumed there’d be a billion little boy wizard movies. Despite it’s astounding popularity, only a few cinematic cash-ins ever saw the light of day, and they weren’t all that successful (I don’t think many people are demanding the next installment of the Percy Jackson series). I guess now you can throw Hunger Games into the mix as well. Young adult supernatural fantasy may rule the pop literary world these days, but it didn’t really succeed in setting aflame the big screen, or even the small screen. You’d think that, if nothing else, the direct-to-DVD or direct-to-Netflix-streaming world would be stuffed to the gills with dodgy young adult vampire romances and such, but that’s not the case. And yes, I’ve looked. All I found was a bunch of cheap, shot on digital video Fast and Furious rip-offs, which naturally, I immediately added to me queue.

I’m not a fan of either Twilight or Harry Potter, but neither am I a detractor, as I have never read either series and likely never will. I have seen some Harry Potter movies, and they were all right, though it turns out that not everyone counts Troll as part of the series. Good or bad, however, there’s obviously something in both of those series that was perfectly timed to tap into a zeitgeist that propelled them to the upper ranks of popularity that was not obtained by their imitators or even by the books (or movies) they themselves might have been imitating. There was something that happened to make each of those the successful ones, and whether you love, hate, or don’t care about either series, there’s no denying that they did something right. Red Riding Hood was one of the first movies to copy the overwrought YA melodrama of Twilight, and few people seem to remember Red Riding Hood was even made. That’s not really a crime against art or anything. Red Riding Hood is a pretty disposable film in many ways. But there’s nothing in it that would seem to make it obvious why it failed where something like Twilight succeeded. Maybe it’s darker? I can’t say, because I have no idea the tone struck by the Twilight series. I know Twilight came with a fan base basically assured, where as Red Riding Hood was basing itself — very loosely — on an old children’s fairy tale. But Red Riding Hood did have Amanda Seyfried, a veteran of the television show Veronica Mars, which has a huge cult following. And there’s the Gary Oldman factor. I guess maybe fans of Veronica Mars and of Gary Oldman skew a little older than the target market for Red Riding Hood?

But still, the advertising seemed to hit all the right “hey, if you liked Twilight then you’ll probably be OK with this film” notes. I remember from my own experience being an idiotic movie goer that teens and younger are particularly susceptible to such marketing, especially when there’s nothing better to do on a Friday night. Maybe the high price of movie tickets has changed things. I might not have seen all those Conan the Barbarian rip-offs in the 1980s if it cost me upwards of twelve bucks a pop to do so. Or maybe werewolves just aren’t as popular with the tweens as vampires — at least not werewolves that keep their shirts on. Whatever the case, Red Riding Hood died on the vine by comparison. Thing is, it’s not that bad of a movie. Oh don’t get me wrong. It’s certainly got it’s flaws, but there are so many other movies that are so much worse that somehow manage to become hits. Red Riding Hood is mildly more ambitious at times than its status as a Twilight cash-in might lead you to believe — but the fact that the writer and director also seem to abandon those ambitions makes it a more frustrating film.

Seyfried stars as Valerie, she who tends to wear a bright crimson robe in a town that is otherwise pretty monochrome. Her remote village is currently under siege from what appears to be a werewolf. Usually, they could sacrifice some chickens or a goat or a little pile of Snausages to the beast, and it would be assuaged (or sausuaged as the case may be). But nature is about to hit the town with a “blood moon,” which means the relative good behavior of the werewolf is subsumed by an out-of-control bloodlust that has it slaughtering the locals. This leads to assorted hunts, deaths, and eventually the welcome arrival of Gary Oldman as a typically Oldman-insane werewolf hunter/inquisitor type accompanied for some reason by some male models. Oh wait, maybe they’re his henchmen. Hmm. When it comes to impressive henchmen, we’re a long way away from but much better groomed than Ben Davidson’s Rexor in Conan the Barbarian. It’s possible they’re there to help him shop for his fabulous clothing, purchased no doubt from the same Renaissance Faire merchant where all those people from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village bought their jaunty yellow cloaks. Anyway, he and Valerie are the only people who own clothing with such warm, vibrant color so you know they’re going to have some words with each other.

Valerie is torn by the love of two competing young lads: the clean-cut virtuous bore Henry (Max Irons), and the brooding skulking bore Peter (Shiloh Fernandez, cast apparently for his ability to look a lot like Robert Pattinson, the vampire statutory rapist from from Twilight). Despite being in a remote rural village in a setting that can best be described as “romancy old timey days where I didn’t want to do a whole lot of historical research,” both of these furrowed-browed lads seem to have an endless supply of hair putty for their bad boy fauxhawks. And both of them are pretty dull, though Peter (oh, I get it…and the wolf) is dull and also likes to flirt with being an emotionally abusive prick, so obviously he’s the ultimate romantic prize for young Valerie. Romance has always had a problem with holding up the mentally abusive dick as the prize, and Peter is basically the Ren Faire version of Ethan Hawke’s snotty emo dickweed from Reality Bites (sadly not a werewolf movie, despite the title and Hawke’s mangy hair) — though Peter manages to be slightly more redeemable. Anyway, when they’re not worrying about the werewolf, one or the other of these two guys is usually popping up behind Valerie, probably perched on a branch or in a hay loft or something so they can squat down in a soulful fashion. Valerie is at least not a total sap for either of these guys, and she spends part of the time being as irritated by the wishy-washiness of the one and the assholishness of the other as are we the viewer.

Needless to say, Valerie also has mysterious ties to the werewolf. Is she the wolf? Is Peter the wolf? He does seem overly concerned about his hair, after all. Or could it be her witch woman grandmother (Julie Christie) who lives in a creepy house out in the woods? And yes, you can bet your bottom dollar that this script will do everything in its power to shoehorn in the “what big eyes you have” dialogue from the source material at some point. Anyway, you won’t really care about the mystery of the werewolf’s identity all that much, but I guess it helps pass the time until Gary Oldman shows up to turn in his expected weird performance. He breathes some life into things and looks resplendent in his purple velvet robes. All things considered, our forgettable young heroes are surrounded by a pretty good cast. Oldman’s shtick is so established now that “Oldmaning” should be a verb, but I never get tired of Oldman when he’s Oldmaning. Michael Hogan is best known for playing the cranky, belligerent Colonel Tigh on Battlestar Galactica. Here he plays… well, basically he plays Colonel Tigh. Virginia Madsen stars as Valerie’s mom and another possible werewolf suspect, while Lucas Haas shows up in a pointless role as a quivering, ineffectual priest who should open a parish with the quivering, ineffectual priest from Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. And to make sure there are some direct ties in the cast to Twilight, Billy Burke plays Valerie’s dad. Yes, yes, he’s in Twilight; but more importantly, he was in Drive Angry and got his ass kicked by Jack Bauer’s daughter in that season of 24 where Johnny Drama hunted Kim Bauer on his private game reserve with a pack of trained panthers. Wait, was that the plot? Well, it is now.

So there’s more veteran talent in this movie than Twilight, which helps soothe the more pouty aspects of watching our young love triangle sigh and mumble at each other. Amanda Seyfried properly looks the part of a fairy tale heroine, and I like that her character has a little more backbone than is typical for a female in a fantasy romance. The trend in supernatural romance literature, which definitely skews toward female protagonists, is to make them much stronger — sometimes in clumsy fashion, but whatever — than the women traditionally featured in either romance (there to be ravaged) or supernatural (usually there to be a sacrifice rescued by the male hero) stories. I know one of the complaints about the girl from Twilight is that’s she’s really kind of a chump. I can’t say too much about that, but Valerie is a much better rounded character. She is a chump from time to time, but no more so than anyone is when they’re stupid with love, and she balances out the teen angst by being more than willing to go at someone with a knife, stare down a werewolf, and engage Gary Oldman in a battle of vibrant cloaks. She also spends a lot of time walking through fake snow in slow motion while Peter and Henry furrow their brows and mumble something or other. And hey — at least her two potential boyfriends are her age, and not some two hundred year old creep who still attends high school and woos teen girls. I know they try to give that Edward Cullen guy an emo gothy twist, but let’s be real — that dude is nothing but the vampire version of Matthew McConaughey’s character from Dazed and Confused.

None of the three leads are actually all that bad at their jobs, but the writing does them no favors. Peter is written as a moody prick, but they forget to highlight any redeeming features he may have that would make you understand why Valerie would be torn between him and what’s his name, the one with the lighter hair. Valerie, for her part, is a more active participant in her own story than I gather the main girl in Twilight is. Red Riding Hood isn’t afraid to throw down in a fight, and while she’s caught in this silly romantic triangle, she doesn’t spent the whole movie pining and whining. So there’s that, I guess. Overall though, David Johnson’s script spends too much time on undeserved romantic hand-wringing of a decidedly high school level — and not as in it would appeal to high schoolers, but that it feels like it was written by a teenager. I think Johnson is purposely trying to write down to the film’s intended audience, and he does himself and them no favors as a result. He wrote two of the better episodes of The Walking Dead (a show that is largely disappointing and frustrating but has a tendency to be brilliant on occasion, making it hard to abandon it). There are flashes of a good if simple story, as well as an impressively ominous mood and a willingness to take on complex topics, but then those flashes seem to get second guessed, and we return to a somewhat crass imitation of Twilight — a movie that is, frankly, below the standards of this film in pretty much every regard save box office.

Director Catherine Hardwicke has previously directed…oh. Twilight. Huh, how about that. But hey, she also made Lords of Dogtown, which is actually a pretty decent film dealing with teenagers. She should have leaned more on that, though I don’t know if Red Riding Hood would have benefitted from a scene where Henry (dude totally looks like a SoCal skater anyway) leads Valerie through a magical, snowy fairy wood to show her a secret empty pool only he and the brownies can skate. But there was a grit to Lords of Dogtown, thanks no doubt to a large degree to the script, that shows Hardwicke is a lot more than “the woman who directed Twilight.” In fact, she left that series after the first film, if I recall, because she just didn’t like the resources and short schedule with which she had to work. Whether by design or coincidence, Red Riding Hood ends up as her response to that other series, and it seems to me to be a more mature if still flawed attempt at capturing the same general audience. I think if she and David Johnson had been less hamstrung by the directive to “make Twilight but with werewolves…well, with just werewolves,” they would have actually come up with a pretty good movie. But that wasn’t the case, and as a result, too much of Red Riding Hood feels too often like a Twilight imitation and treads that same middle-of-the-tween-intellect writing water that panders to but never really engages or challenges the audience (and yes, you can both pander to and challenge in the same film).

There are a few places where the film succeeds without as many caveats as I’ve so far placed on it. Hardwicke’s background is in production design, and for someone known mostly as the director of Twilight, she has a surprisingly strong cult film pedigree when it comes to that profession. She cut her teeth on the hilariously wrong-headed but now hilariously harmless skateboard exploitation film Thrashin’ and went on to work as a production designer for such films as Tapeheads, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Brain Dead (the Bill Pullman/Bill Paxton one, not the Peter Jackson one), Tank Girl, and Alex Winters’ Freaked. So it’s not surprising that where the plot and dialogue of this movie may falter, the look of the film is pretty interesting. The setting is obviously not from any actual period in history, and for the most part, the movie is unconcerned with convincing you this is anything but a movie set. But it still looks pretty good, thanks largely I would guess to Hardwicke’s background as well as the fact that she has a pretty accomplished production designer working with her here. Thomas Sanders got his start in production design on Francis Ford Coppola’s ridiculously overblown Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Say what you will about the bombast of that movie, but it was certainly memorable looking. Sanders also worked on Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, and Apocalypto, three of crazy ol’ Mel Gibson’s most ambitious films in terms of setting and sense of place.

What Sanders and Hardwicke dream up for the look of Red Riding Hood is pretty sumptuous even if not wholly original, though just like the films by which it was inspired, it’s going to be a very divisive style. A lot of people don’t like the obvious setbound look, but I guess growing up on Hammer and Shaw Brothers movies predisposes me to liking that approach. It obviously hearkens back to Sanders’ experience on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with more than a dash of Ridley Scott’s glittery fairytale atmosphere from Legend. In fact, this movie looks an awful lot like Legend, which was another movie that seemed to actively seek out a very stylized but obviously not “real” setting, the polar opposite of fantasy films like The Lord of the Rings that go to great lengths to make their fantastic events look like they are happening in our real world (more or less). The look of Red Riding Hood lends the film a lush, hypnotic quality that helps the viewer deal with the choppy plot and painful young romance dialogue. If I could change anything about the look of this film, it would be to explain that snow does not look or move the same as white sand, and that if you are CGI’ing in a blizzard, you should probably douse your actors with more than a token few fake snowflakes on their shoulders. But other than that, there’s a lot to appreciate visually in this film, which makes good ose of awkwardly tilting cottages, spooky woods, and of course, Valerie’s bright crimson robe against snowy white backgrounds.

I also really like the soundtrack composed by Brian Reitzell and Alex Heffes. Reitzell is turning into an interesting musical director, and his inclusion in this film’s crew draws further connections to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Reitzell got into the soundtrack business thanks primarily to the fact that he was a record nerd and dating Sofia Copolla’s best friend — Sofia, of course, being Francis Ford’s daughter. Anyway, she hired Reitzell to put together the music for her first film, The Virgin Suicides, and he worked with her on subsequent films not just as a soundtrack advisor, but as a composer. Before too long, he had a fair string of credits under his belt, including Lost in Translation, 30 Days of Night, and Stranger than Fiction. He also joined the band Air at some point and wrote a soundtrack for a fake sequel to Logan’s Run. His music for Red Riding Hood fits the film in that way where it doesn’t really fit the film but somehow works perfectly. On a few tracks, he works with Swedish electronic artist Karin Dreijer Andersson, also known as Fever Ray. It’s a blend of modern sounds, ambient noise, and percussion that sounds like Dead Can Dance, Tarja Turunen, and the soundtrack from Ravenous all got thrown into a blender. It works well with the freaky production design. It’s not exactly anachronistic, since Red Riding Hood doesn’t really take place in a real time, and I like the fact that it’s weirder and more aggressive than the “eh, just get some Enya sounding stuff or some new age asshole” soundtracks for which movies like this might otherwise settle. Fever Ray’s “Keep The Streets Empty For Me” and “The Wolf” alone are worth the price of the watching the movie.

Oh yeah, also, there’s a werewolf in this movie. I guess we should talk about Red Riding Hood‘s great hairy beast and its version of werewolf lore. The original fairy tale lends itself pretty easily to adaptation into a werewolf movie, as is evidenced by all the werewolf versions of it that have been made over the years. None fo them achieve the fairytale atmosphere as effectively as this one. Like a lot of modern movies, it seems to make up whatever crap it wants to about werewolves. They become werewolves during the full moon, though there seem to be a lot of full moons. But that’s pretty common in werewolf movies. The werewolf is an uncontrollable hulking killing machine with no humanity left in it, unless of course the movie needs it to be otherwise, in which case I guess love conquers the savage heart or some dreck like that. Compared to what both Twilight and those Underworld movies did to vampires and werewolves, Red Riding Hood‘s transgressions against traditionally accepted werewolfery are relatively mild. The monster ends up just looking like a big shaggy wolf, which isn’t all that exciting but is better than those silly acrobatic humanoid werewolves from the Underworld movies. I’ll always miss when werewolves were just dog-faced hairy guys, but that’s only because I like monsters who wear trousers. Red Riding Hood‘s werewolf is CGI, but the stylized artificiality of the setting as a whole makes it work better than it might otherwise. Plus, they keep it in the shadows or moving too quickly to pick apart the special effects.

So how about that? Almost a positive review of a tweeny werewolf fairytale? Fact is, I really didn’t hate this movie at all. If I had a kid, I think I would rather take them to see this than Twilight — and I would take them to see either this or that before I took them to, you know, some Bratz: The Movie sort of deal. Having grown up a weird punk rocker, I appreciate that the popularity of supernatural romance, especially among teens, promotes acceptance of a more off-kilter, weirder, nerdier sort of lifestyle. Now if only we could dispense with the male love interest being a sullen prick for most of the movie, we’d really be in business. I also appreciate that Red Riding Hood dips its tow into more controvertial material than “could I eve rlove a werewolf?” Lucas Haas’ cowardly priest and Gary Oldman’s torture-happy inquisitor are juxtaposed against a comparatively benign opinion of paganism and humanism. And Oldman’s scenes in particular push the film out of the realm of misty-eyed fantasy and into the gruesome darkness of something like Dragonslayer — still the most shockingly dark kids’ fantasy film of all time. And ultimately I think Red Riding Hood deserves to be in the company of movies like Dragonslayer and Legend rather than being relegated to the ranks of Twilight cash-ins. When it mimics the latter is when it’s at its weakest and when the writing becomes too hokey, with hammy romance dialogue delivered by young performers without the skill and gravitas to pull it off. Gary Oldman could have done it, but it would have been silly to have him saying everyone’s lines. Maybe they could redub the entire film using Oldman as Peter, Christopher Lee as Henry, and Brian Blessed as Valerie. No matter what shit the writer has those actors say, they’ll make you believe it. And since we can’t have Oldman dubbing Oldman, I guess you could then go and dub Oldman’s character with Christopher Walken. “Gather…round…you star-crossed lovers…one of you…is…A WOLF.”

Ehh, I’ve lost myself in a tangent, haven’t I? OK, so point is, Red Riding Hood is a hammy Twilight imitation that sometimes strives to be more than that but never seems to develop faith in itself, ultimately undermining what could have been a perfectly acceptable fairytale film. Instead of going with the typical “fans of Twilight will like it,” let me give the film a little more credit, if for no other reason than the production design, music, and Gary Oldman’s frockcoats: fans of Legend will like it. Werewolf movie fans? Eh, probably not but I bet you’ll end up watching it anyway because you know, like I know, we werewolf movie fans don’t get many choices. Actually, this entire movie could have been salvaged if they’d just done something different with love interest Peter. But his look is just so utterly absurd — seriously dude, the hair — and his character so inconsistently written that he almost sinks the movie. Amanda Seyfried’s Valerie is perfectly acceptable, and even Max Irons’ boring woodsman or blacksmith or stoned Z-Boy or whatever he was could have been tolerated since that sort of character is always sort of dull (he can go out later for a beer with Orlando Bloom’s dull ol’ character from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies). Those things could all be accepted, especially with Oldman mincing about and Colonel Tigh all grumpin’ on about conditions on New Caprica or whatever. But Peter — ugh! Just terrible. I don’t blame you, Shiloh Fernandez. Someone obviously commanded you to gel up your hair and act as much like the Twilight guy as possible, and you did what they asked. But they asked something bad of you, and when you delivered, it wreathed what could have been a much better in a whiff of bad poetry and hair putty.

So there’s a lot of bet hedging in this, but the final result is that I liked Red Riding Hood a lot more than I expected to — which is to say that I didn’t expect to like it at all. I’m always happy to be surprised, especially by a movie that seems at first glance to be so far afield from the sort of thing I normally like. But then, if you looked at my reading list right now, you’d find it pretty heavily weighted by supernatural romance and urban fantasy with female leads, so I suppose if you take into account my reading preferences these days, perhaps it’s not so surprising that I thought this movie was OK despite the missteps and the fact that Henry and Peter spent so much time sculpting their hair. Hey, at least they didn’t have swept-forward mop top Justin Beiber cuts, right? Red Riding Hood benefits greatly from a veteran supporting cast and some actual talent and vision behind the camera. Yes, it’s a movie that struggles with being an overly mawkish young adult romance or being a grim fairytale. And in a way, this film’s identity struggle is reflective of the same struggle on the part of the film’s one last big gun. It was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who still struggles with being thought of only as “that guy from Titanic” or as a kid actor since he has a young face. The only difference is that DiCaprio has totally distanced himself from romantic Titanic sorts of roles, where as Red Riding Hood can’t quite divorce itself from that sort of tween romance, but I can deal with that. It’s really no different that listening to a Shangri-Las song, and I love the Shangri-Las. Just imagine if the pack the leader of the pack was leading had been a werewolf pack.

Ironically, Red Riding Hood failed as a Twilight cash-in and seems to have missed a sudden flood of fairytale movies and television shows. Red Riding Hood hit screens a year too soon. If it had been made in 2012, it would have been accompanied by TV shows like Grimm and movies like Snow White and the Huntsman. Oh wait. Damn, Snow White and the Huntsman stars Kristen “Twilight” Stewart, doesn’t it? It’s inescapable! Anyway…released as a colleague of those works rather than Twilight (which has just about run its course, I think), Red Riding Hood could have shed some of its absurd teen romance dialogue, featured less of an Edward Cullen wannabe love interest, and concentrated on being the more mature and sinister movie director Hardwicke and writer Johnson are doubtless capable of making. There are flashes of that movie in this one, especially once Oldman loses his shit and starts torturing people in pretty grisly fashion. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and so Red Riding Hood ends up being a footnote, dismissed because of its attempts at mimicking a movie series that gets very little respect. Sometimes, that’s exactly what it is. Other times, though, it’s something more substantial, and for me those moments made it worth wandering through Red Riding Hood‘s twisted winter forest.

Release Year: 2011 | Country: United States | Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Billy Burke, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Virginia Madsen, Lukas Haas, Julie Christie, Shauna Kain, Michael Hogan, Adrian Holmes, Cole Heppell, Christine Willes , Michael Shanks, Kacey Rohl | Screenplay: David Johnson | Director: Catherine Hardwicke | Cinematography: Mandy Walker | Music: Alex Heffes, Brian Reitzell, Fever Ray | Availability: Blu | DVD (Amazon)