‘Red Riding Hood:’ Overheated and Half-Baked

The problem with Red Riding Hood is not that it’s bad–it’s that it’s not bad enough. At once both overheated and half-baked (to mix cooking metaphors), it desperately wants to be taken seriously both as a psychosexual revisionist update to the Grimm Brothers tale and some sort of vague political commentary, but then squanders whatever potential it might have had by overlaying the proceedings with the prudish, swooning romanticism of the Twilight series. The film doesn’t have the teeth to bite into the thrumming subterranean eroticism lurking (supposedly) just beneath its overripe surface; but neither does it have the self-awareness (or self-confidence) to cross over the line into full blown kitsch, which it often threatens to do, but never does. It’s all the worse for it.

Though visually overstated and gaudy—the storybook setting, in a village deep in the woods, is a contrast of deliberately drab, almost sepia backgrounds, and isolated oversaturated colors in the foreground–Red Riding Hood is narratively and thematically tedious, to the point of inertia. Young Valerie (Amanda Seyfried, who really needs to get a new agent fast, lest her potential go to waste) is torn between two suitors—Peter, the bad boy she grew up loving, and Henry, the son of a wealthy family, and the one Valerie’s parents have pledged her to. Adding to Valerie’s burdens is the fact that the village has been eternally plagued by a vicious werewolf, who needs to be appeased with an animal sacrifice every full moon, or he starts chowing down on villagers.

One night, after the wolf kills Valerie’s sister, the villagers get their dander up a group of them carousing at the pub—including Peter and Henry–decide to go wolf hunting. Tracking the beast to its supposed lair, they manage to bag and kill what looks like, in the light of day, a small husky. Unfazed by the general unfearsomeness of this “wolf”, they declare victory over their eternal enemy. Was it really that easy? I guess it was – sorry, kids, movie’s over.

But wait wait wait! Here comes famed werewolf hunter Father Solomon (the always game Gary Oldman) lumbering into town—arriving dramatically in a steel plated stagecoach, with his improbably ethnically mixed band of mercenaries armed with crossbows and whips, and accompanied by a giant cast iron elephant on wheels (?!!)—declaring the werewolf to still be quite alive, and probably even walking amongst them even as he speaks. Because, of course, when you kill a werewolf, it reverts back to its human form. And, well, this husky still looks quite like a husky in death. So, that werewolf? Yeah, he’s still kicking around.

The villagers will have none of it and laugh off Solomon’s warnings, until later that night, when the werewolf attacks again, rampaging through their celebratory revelries. In the wake of the subsequent slaughter, Father Solomon declares martial law, barricades the town, brands everyone a suspect, and refuses to let anyone leave until the wolf is smoked out in human form.

Now, at this point Red Riding Hood could have (or should have) gone one of two ways. It could have turned into some sort of Crucible style allegory of politically charged paranoia and suspicion, with the villagers turning on each other, and innocent victims pilloried and sacrificed in the name of public safety. And it goes about halfway in this direction, with poor Valerie becoming the ultimate focus of the witch hunt, before deciding that it was just kidding and doesn’t actually want be about the politics of fear and terror.

The other option–which I was really hoping would be triggered when Gary Oldman (who can reliably bring the crazy when he wants) showed up with his iron elephant in tow–was for the film to commit whole hog to the campier aspects it was already trotting out up to that point. If the film had just figured that it really was just a piece of B-movie trash all along, and indulged in its trashiness, some sort of guilty pleasure might have been salvaged.

Certainly the elements are there: the acting is wildly erratic (Oldman giving it his scenery chewing best, the two romantic leads as stiff as mannequins); the line reading either fevered or robotic; the CGI for the wolf is laughably bad (almost SciFi channel bad); the set and setting lush and rococo to the point of self-parody. And at points it seems to know, to become self-aware, but then the script strains to retain its veneer of seriousness, and the spell is broken.

Red Riding Hood opts to strike a middle ground between these two poles, and never finds its bearings, reeling about like a wounded beast before limping away to die with a cowardly, idiotic climax that is a shocking twist only because of lazy screenwriting. The final reveal of the wolf’s identity—after an endless string of red (ha!) herrings—would have been obvious, and maybe even satisfying, if it were hinted at during the preceding 90 minutes, if the film had indulged in something seamier than the PG-13, Twilight-esque romance it offers up to its tween audience. Instead, it’s so startlingly out of place, that I thought I was watching the end of a different movie, one that I hadn’t actually been watching up to that point.

For the record, there is a right way to do this. In fact, it’s been done already. It’s called Freeway, and stars a young Reese Witherspoon as a trailer trash, jailbait Red Riding Hood, pursued by a sadistic serial killer/pedophile Kiefer Sutherland as the biggest, baddest wolf out there. Rent it sometime, you’ll thank me.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the elephant – it’s used as an interrogation aid/torture chamber. Oldman feeds his victims into its hollow interior, locks the hatch, lights a fire underneath it, and let’s his victims roast until they confess or die horribly. It should be the centerpiece of the movie, but is criminally underutilized. I’m with Ebert on this one – a movie following Oldman carting the thing around the medieval countryside would’ve been infinitely more entertaining and interesting.

The copy I received for review was a mix Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. The Blu-ray contains an “alternate” ending, alternate being used as loosely as possible, since I think it adds maybe 20 seconds on to the run time, and doesn’t actually alter things at all. The extras, all on the Blu-ray, are a spare smattering of picture-in-picture commentary, some behind the scenes features, music videos, and gag reels. None of them is particularly illuminating or essential. The DVD has the theatrical release and a downloadable digital copy of the same.

RATING 3 / 10