Opening with the same computer-animated "helicopter" shots of chilled, remote landscapes pockmarked with medieval villages and fortifications, Red Riding Hood clearly bears the runny, hastily applied stamp of its incompetent auteur, Catherine Hardwicke, who also helmed the first Twilight. Hardwicke brings the same sleepy tedium to this film, maintaining her sped-up yet monotonously droning montage of trees, snow-covered mountains and streams for the whole of the opening credits, devoting minutes to these repetitive, unengaging shots before finally starting in flashback on a young village girl running around the woods with her friend Peter. The two trap a rabbit in a cage, and the girl eagerly pulls out a knife to cut the bunny's throat, eliciting from myself and my two accompanying friends a simultaneous, involuntary cry of "What?!" before the scene jerks away to a calmer shot and a "Ten Years Later" title appears on-screen over yet more damn shots of more damn trees. It was the Surprise Symphony of crap.
The girl, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried, inspiring hordes of lazy "My, what big eyes you have" jokes), is now grown-up but still playful, ignoring propriety to slink around the woods all day and tease Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), now a woodcutter (guess. Just guess). Apparently, slitting an animal's throat with relish did not send Peter running for the hills, and he does everything short of getting into Valerie's smock in full view of the town despite her being betrothed to another. (But not to fear, later they cross that thin line in an obvious location begging to be caught.) I did not know that medieval apothecaries made some kind of hair gel, but Peter has clearly found something to perk up his oh-so-gentled messed hair, and for someone who should be working all day with the other villagers, Peter certainly does manage to get away with quite a bit of downtime in which to stare broodingly. Even the men cannot help but be mesmerized by those eyes, it seems.
I've used the term "medieval" twice now, but I may be setting myself up for embarrassment. Red Riding Hood does not fit neatly into an identifiable time period, incorporating modern idioms into generic folk-tale settings as if a live-action Shrek. These crossbow-wielding, log-chopping peasants have "crushes" on people and worry about who in town is richest despite the clear irrelevance of coins in this barter society. The remote hamlet of Daggerhorn operates in feudal fashion but does not seem to have any overseeing lord. In fact, they lack any clear leader at all, operating in such collective "harrumphing" that one's mind drifts to the erudite socialist serf in Monty Python and the Holy Grail explaining the place to any travelers who might happen upon the village.
Bonding the townspeople together is the fear of a werewolf that terrorizes them, though no one has seen it in years. Only when the old rituals of animal sacrifices and boarded-up houses slack with comfort does the beast suddenly return, harshing Valerie's plans to run off with Peter -- seriously, where? You are tucked away in an empty forest that even the Holy Roman Emperor does not want to control -- by killing her sister. So it goes. The townspeople, whipped into a frenzy by
To set them straight on their magnificent ignorance, along comes the witch-hunting priest Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) to gently explain to them that a werewolf turns back into a person and lives among people. Hence, y'know, werewolf. Honestly, this is the one time you can't blame Oldman for yelling at people. Flanked by what appears to be a crossover ad with Benetton and Medieval Times, Solomon and his warriors soon take over the town with their accents. Everyone else in the film speaks unabashedly in an American accent, including England-born Max Irons, who plays Valerie's intended husband Henry and always looks as if on the verge of tears. But Oldman sports a vaguely Transylvanian accent left over from his time as Dracula; taken with his dress -- not robe, dress -- made out of purple velvet, Oldman's mad voice pulled me from the dreariness of the film for a moment before the undertow of the movie's relentless slog yanked him out to sea.
Oldman's arrival leads to the proper introduction of the film's broad, blatant themes on female repression and sexual assault. The religious Solomon searches for any sign of witchcraft, his accurate opinion that the werewolf lives among the townsfolk leads to zealous invasion of privacy for the sake of bringing out the devil in the town. Through a series of events, Valerie finds herself targeted, partially because of the flowing red cloak she wears ("the Devil's color," adds Solomon, having inherited none of his namesake's wisdom). Tacitly, her open sexuality with Peter comes back to bite her as the village turns on her instantly, branding her a witch and leaving her out for sacrifice. They've practically watched her eat up her man in public; what's the difference in seeing her eaten*?
The sad truth of suspense movies where truly anyone can be the monster among the rest is that eventually no one cares who the monster actually is. Everyone gets to act either menacingly -- Peter, Valerie's grandmother (Julie Christie) -- or unilaterally weak -- Valerie's alcoholic father (Billy Burke, who, judging from his career, might have brought his own booze), the town priest (Lukas Haas). They're all trying so hard to be both the red herring and the Person You Least Expect that the climactic reveal lacks any weight. Perhaps if anyone looked natural in this environment, I might have bothered to study them more closely, but everyone acts so transparently as if on a set: you can practically smell how artificially clean this muddy, livestock-filled village is, and not even snowstorms can get some of these people out of short-sleeved shirts and flimsy cloth pants.
Meanwhile, Hardwicke continues to fumble tying her sexual symbolism into her murky, monotonous mise-en-scène. If she has captured anything relating to sex in her two fantastical virgin allegories, it's the somnambulant thrusting of Ambien intercourse. So many shots in the film are so out-of-focus I questioned whether the studio hired the cinematographer from The Room. The obvious metaphor of the flowing red cloak flowing behind Valerie at all times, to say nothing of the sexual connotations of a blood-flushed "hood," pops up so often I would expect even prepubescents to say "We get it!" by the end of the film. At least Hardwicke shows young people willing to have sex in this film, proving that even tucked-away Catholics in the Dark Ages were more psychologically and sexually stable than Stephenie Meyer. Yet once again, we get the mysterious, potentially hazardous bad boy wooing the doe-eyed (or bug-eyed, as the case may be) virgin into supernatural passion, and when my friend joked at the end that they set up "Red Riding Hood 2," she may not have been far off the filmmakers' intentions. Too bad the film makes the bloodless anti-chemistry of Bella and Edward look like the timeless romance for which some have taken it.
Red Riding Hood does not even work as good trash. It certainly has the seriousness required of any so-bad-it's-good romp worth its salt; everyone speaks with such gravity and verve that one almost forgives them all for speaking with American accents in their tucked-away European hamlet. Comedy works the same way as tragedy: just as the audience cries more when the characters don't allow themselves to shed tears, so too does comedy come more naturally when everyone acts sternly and does not turn to wink at the camera. And with such lines as "Lock him up in the elephant!" (don't ask) and eye-rolling suggestive phrases like "I could eat you up," the cast deserves credit for managing at least one take where they all didn't burst into gales of laughter, if for no other reason than to ward off tears. But the plot is so dull, so endlessly plodding, so flagrantly stitched together, that this unwarranted gravitas never elevates the film to the best of the worst.
My friends and I emerged from the screening in a daze. Normally, we discuss the film, gushing over the details of movies we loved or cracking jokes about the bad ones. Yet all we could do was look around, awkward and bewildered, unable to say anything without devolving into stutters or silence. There's nothing to Red Riding Hood, no sensuality in its animal lust, no joy in its deadpan tedium, no pleasure in seeing its talented lead actress continue to waste her potential on projects that do not utilize her strengths. Then again, considering that practically every movie Seyfried makes does not tap into her potential, perhaps I and others of my mindset are simply projecting the thought of talent onto her, willing her to be worthy of whatever aura we see around her. Perhaps my glasses prescription still has not fully fixed my eyes.
This movie is an insult to folk tales that have entertained and scared children for centuries, to the very idea of a fable, even to the experimental film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, from which I guess this film's protagonist got her name. That 1970 Czech movie is a riot, a surrealist depiction of the stress of pubescent womanhood on a confused, repressed girl. Red Riding Hood is itself confused and repressed, too stupid to rise above and navigate the moral waters in which it wades. The entire project feels like nothing more than an excuse for Hardwicke to get back to her roots as a production designer. Her chief artistic contribution to the set design? Putting spikes on trees. Would that I could have run my throat into one of them.
*Probably should have phrased that differently.