If fairy tales are now being mined as source material for Twilight-derivative tales of angsty, romantically confused teen girls, then expect a lot of these movies before the well runs dry. I suppose it was high time someone wrested the psychosexually potent fairy tale from the sanitizing grip of Disney, but one can only hope they get better than Red Riding Hood (or the other offering currently in theatres, Beastly, an updated spin on Beauty and the Beast)
Red Riding Hood isn't terrible, and director Catherine Hardwicke (who directed Twilight, as well as teen dramas Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown) has made a stylish if frequently silly tale of romantic rivalry and things that howl in the night. As the movie begins, a tomboy named Valerie and her buddy Peter get into mischief, trapping rabbits in the forest. The woods are forbidden territory, but, as Valerie explains in a voice over, she always had trouble being obedient, even though she tried to be good. A good little bunny killer, it turns out.
Years later, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) and Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), a woodsman with the spiky, tousled hair of a 21st century alterna-rocker, sneak away into the forbidden woods to be bad all over again. Valerie has been betrothed to Henry (Max Irons), a prosperous blacksmith with dreamy eyes and curly hair. Valerie's mother Suzette (Virginia Madsen) doesn't approve of Peter, who is from the wrong side of the village or something, and whose smoldering good looks make him an obvious threat to her jailbait daughter. Suzette knows too well the poor economic prospects of a handsome woodcutter. She married one too -- Valerie's father Cesaire (Billy Burke). It being medieval times, Valerie can't post of her woes in a status update on Facebook, so for solace, she runs into the woods, to grandmother's house. Grandmother (Julie Christie) wears her hair in dreadlocks and looks like she might have walked straight out of the mud of Yasgur's farm to her little cabin in the wolf-infested woods.
Ah yes, the wolf. A werewolf, to be precise, one with whom the villagers of Daggerhorn have an arrangement. The wolf doesn't kill any humans, and the villagers, in turn, leave him delectable morsels like piglets and goats. Daggerhorn is nestled deep in the mountains, surrounded by forests full of spiky trees. The village looks like a movie set, which, of course, it is. The villagers are dressed in costumes that look exactly like costumes, adding a layer of inauthenticity to the already artificial proceedings. That the snow on the ground looks like sand doesn't help either.
So, the wolf kills a teenage girl, in a field full of hayricks that are mysteriously and distractingly dotted with blue flowers. Well, maybe that happens to hayricks when werewolves are about, especially during a... blood moon! Yes, indeed, the moon is red, and the villagers are all worked up because the werewolf has reneged on the deal. Apparently you can't trust a werewolf, but one wonders how exactly one bargains with a werewolf. Was it a contractual arrangement, or more of a handshake deal? More people die, and a werewolf hunter named Father Solomon (Gary Oldman, tearing off big chunks of scenery and chewing thoroughly for maximal villainy) is summoned. Father Solomon is... how to put this nicely? A lunatic. He arrives in an armored coach with his heavily armed, multicultural contingent of soldiers, and a very large metal elephant. The elephant, he says, was invented by the Romans, which doesn't seem to impress the villagers. The blood moon, he tells the villagers, is an especially dangerous time, for anyone bitten by the werewolf will be turned into a werewolf. He also informs them that the werewolf is no ordinary wolf, but rather a human who walks among them by day. (By night he's a computer generated creation with glowing eyes and my, what big teeth!) Solomon's werewolf witch hunt occasions much sideways glancing as the villagers consider whether their neighbors might be wolves in medieval costumes.
The screenplay by David Johnson combines elements from many versions of the Red Riding Hood story, including the revisionist feminist takes. Red Riding Hood doesn't scratch any deeper than the surface, doesn't explore the hidden meanings or psychological insights of the tale of the girl in red. Instead, the movie froths it up into a tale of sexual rivalry, sexual danger, and monster danger, with some kooky, ravey dancing around the bonfire and whatnot of the sort that downtrodden medieval villagers probably never had the time or energy to do. Especially not wearing short sleeves when there's fake snow on the ground. At various times, Valerie suspects both Henry and Peter of being the werewolf, and the movie plays along, creating all sorts of reasons to suspect both of them. Henry and Peter, being rivals for Valerie's affections, have clunky, awkward scenes in which they vaguely threaten each other like petulant schoolboys. Valerie's got troubles with her inconstant, backstabbing teen girlfriends too.
The movie's main trouble is that it's too long and slow-moving for such a scant plot. The plot, in any case, is packed with silliness, the main purpose of which is to spring a little surprise at the end when the werewolf's true identity is revealed. (It's a disappointment, frankly.) Hardwicke takes advantage of Seyfried's huge saucer eyes, and a goodly portion of the film consists of close-ups of those astonishing peepers, mostly signifying suspicion and distrust, as Valerie tries to detect -- by staring into other people's eyes -- the wolf in their midst. She's not a passive creature (unlike, say, Twilight's Bella, an annoyingly mopey, do-nothing waiting for her prince to bite), and in her way, confronts and invites danger, savagery, and animal lust. She's a pretty little wild thing, and she's armed. In a more committed, insightful movie, she could have been an interesting heroine.