After slogging through the marginally entertaining but nevertheless faulty Red Riding Hood, one gets the impression that director Catherine Hardwicke called the shots with a large chip on her shoulder.
Teenyboppers and closet guy members of Team Jacob should recognize her as the camera-woman behind 2008’s Twilight, the jumpoff film in the extraordinarily successful franchise known for its glistening, vegetarian vampires. Prior to introducing Robert Pattinson to armies of wide-eyed girls, Hardwicke was a gritty independent filmmaker, responsible for the uncharacteristically adult teen dramas Thirteen and Lords Of Dogtown.
Twilight, however, was attacked by serious movie heads for its soft approach to bloodsuckers and general lack of thrills, amongst other critiques. In Red Riding Hood, she’s a conflicted overseer, seemingly torn between making a serviceable Twilight-esque romance for that crowd and a surprisingly dark and dangerous genre film to show Bella Swan’s biggest naysayers that Hardwicke hasn’t lost her edge. The result, while effective in parts, is ultimately a step backward for Hardwicke.
Unlike the Kristen Stewart-led Twilight, Red Riding Hood has an efficient lead actress in Amanda Seyfried. The blonde stunner—who achieved infamy amongst red-blooded males by going nude and seducing Julianne Moore in last year’s Chloe—plays an older, feistier version of the preteen character at the heart of the classic folk tale “Little Red Riding Hood,” named Valerie here.
There’s still a grandmother (played with convincing smarm by Julie Christie), but everything else from the old childhood yarn is remixed. The Big Bad Wolf is now a lycanthrope, giving the film its central “Who’s the werewolf?” mystery. And, in an obvious ploy to lure in young female viewers, Valerie has two J. Crew model-like dudes vying for her love: the brooding and risky choice, Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), and the safer bet, Henry (Max Irons), to whom Valerie has been preordained to marry.
The wolfman (or woman?) slays Valerie’s younger sister, which prompts the village’s priest to summon higher-ranking Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), an experienced werewolf hunter. Solomon brings his sword-wielding minions along with him, locking the village down and practicing barbaric investigation tactics such as locking a mentally disabled kid inside a giant elephant statue positioned above a fire pit. Now there’s something you won’t find in any pussyfooted Twilight film.
The werewolf attacks, though sparse, are unexpectedly hardcore. Ripped-up bodies are tossed into buildings with the directness of trash into garbage cans. The beast bites off the head of one of Oldman’s thugs (don’t expect geysers of red stuff, however). And a major character’s hand gets severed by the wolf’s chompers.
It’s in these reasonably violent scenes that Hardwicke seems to have tough critics in mind; though it’s all reined in to meet the film’s PG-13 rating, Red Riding Hood’s darkest bits underscore a movie that’s hoping to shock those awaiting a Twilight clone.
The chips are in place for Hardwicke to pull off the sneak attack, right down to the film’s screenwriter, David Leslie Johnson, who’s script for 2009’s underrated “creepy kid” horror flick Orphan was a twisty and intelligent shocker. Whereas Orphan felt like the work of a hungry writer, Red Riding Hood reeks of pay-for-hire job acceptance.
Too many of Johnson’s characters are obvious red herrings, and his reliance on shadowy misdirection and enigmatic dialogue shows a man insecure in his ability to construct an unpredictable whodunit. And when the final reveal finally happens, it’s a huge letdown, not to mention one that is unaware of its own sexual inappropriateness (you’ll have to see what we mean for yourselves—no spoilers here).
Commendably, Johnson’s script places nearly as much emphasis on the werewolf plot as it does the threeway love triangle, but there’s no mystery as to whom Red Riding Hood desires. How hard can it be to act like you’re smitten by Amanda Seyfried?
Apparently it’s a tall order; that’s what male leads Fernandez and Irons would lead you to believe, at least. Irons fares slightly better, playing a more sympathetic character granted chances to express emotions other than Abercrombie & Fitch ad steeliness. Fernandez, on the other hand, has seen one too many James Dean movies. Squinty eyed and altogether gloomy, his Peter (ayo!) is the role Luke Perry was born to play; it’s safe to assume that the former 90210 heartthrob could’ve given the character much more depth and less “sensitive bad boy” lameness.
It’s easy to see why Seyfried signed on to this uneven disappointment—still looking for mainstream prominence, she’s a talented actress who’s one mega-hit away from the A-list. On paper, Red Riding Hood seems like a potential smash, and Seyfried gives her all to the mission of seeing that promise through, but it’s just not in the cards for her this go-round. She has the misfortune of taking part in Hardwicke’s indecisive and fruitless attempt at regaining street cred. If only Kristen Stewart had beaten her to the punch.