Red Riding Hood has come down to us lately, giving everybody a chance to see, on the big screen, the familiar tale of a medieval village gripped by the paranoiac fear of the local werewolf, and the young woman torn between her childhood sweetheart and the scion of the village's wealthiest family, and how this young woman proves to be the only person who can stop the werewolf in its depredations.
In other words, writer David Leslie Johnson and director Catherine Hardwicke have made what is often euphemistically called a "free adaptation" that really has no reason on God's earth for being called Red Riding Hood at all, except that Medieval Chick Fighting Werewolves: The Movie wouldn't have brand recognition or a built-in audience. Okay, so it would, but more the Zack Snyder kind of built-in audience than the Twilight built-in audience, which is where the film is explicitly aiming, and assuming that a goodly sized clutch of Twi-hards were suckered in by the ad campaign trumpeting that exact connection, I imagine they were disappointed by the wolf's failure to sparkle.
In this version of the tale, Amanda Seyfried plays Valeries, the younger daughter of a woodcutter in a small Mittel-European village in what looks and acts mostly like the, oh, 15th Century or thereabouts. Ever since childhood, Valerie has had a crush on Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), with whom she got into all sorts of low-grade trouble growing up, and they're beginning to play with the idea of running away together when it's announced that she's been betrothed to Henry (Max Irons), son of the local... smithy, I guess? Whatever, he's the richest man in a highly isolated community where everybody else seems to be a woodcutter, which strikes me as a dangerously imbalanced economy.
That same evening, Valerie's sister is killed by the local werewolf who lives in a cave beyond the forest, the first human in 20 years to so die. Thus begins a village-wide spate of paranoia, with the local priest (Lukas Haas) calling in the aid of famed monster hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), a deranged wolf-hunter who declares the medieval version of martial law when he concludes that, in fact, the werewolf is one of the villagers.Valerie, who discovers that she can communicate with the wolf telepathically, starts to suspect everyone, especially Peter and Henry, despite the fact that they wouldn't have been born yet when the wolf was last active.
Points to the film for not making it obvious who is, in fact, the wolf, though it gets there through the cheater's route of making virtually everyone other than Valerie and her mother (an embarrassingly blowsy Virginia Madsen) into a red herring, so that the final reveal is less, "OMG, I can't believe it was ____!", more, "ah, so it was _____." Points also for focusing emphatically more on the horror/fantasy elements of the plot than on the love triangle that isn't even a triangle (the only time Valerie seems even marginally interested in Henry is when she believes that Peter wants to eat her alive), which alone would be enough to make the film more tolerable than the Twilight series. It might not be a terribly good werewolf film (though it's a damn sight better than last year's remake of The Wolfman), but it is a werewolf film, unashamed to foreground horror and the otherworldly & not so much the lingering glances and adolescent angst.
Though lingering glances and adolescent angst are most unquestionably present, and wholly unwanted. This is bad for the film, beyond the obvious fact that we don't really need more of these teen-soapy monster movies in the world; for example, there's the fairly insurmountable problem that both Fernandez and Irons, to be diplomatic about it, were both cast for their looks, which even then are somewhat debatable: Irons has an alarmingly impersonal face, the kind of mid-tier blank generic prettiness you might find in a Sears catalog, while Fernandez perpetually sports a half-sneer and heavy-lidded expression that gives him a sarcastic kind of expression, and I kept hating him constantly whenever he was onscreen. At any rate, being pretty, even in a sort of indefinably not-pretty way is not the same as being a credible romantic lead, and neither of these young men has any sort of charisma, or, more damningly, the remotest chemistry with Seyfried.
It's perhaps not fair of me to single out Fernandez and Irons, however, not when the whole cast is at a mostly uniform level of grating impersonality. That's about what we should expect from Haas, or Billy Burke as Valerie's father, whose performance mostly consists of looking sorrowfully grim and grimly sorrowful. It's distinctly less than we deserve from Seyfried, who even when she's saddled with a lousy script (as happens all the damn time), usually fights against. It's positively ghastly in the case of a genuinely good actress like Julie Christie, playing the largely useless role of Grandma (in a desperate, wholly failed attempt to connect the movie to the fairy tale at all), and not giving a shit if you can tell that she doesn't like the movie any more than we do. Only two men break through the static: Michael "Saul Motherfucking Tigh" Hogan, enlivening a sort of nondescript village elder with a healthy dose of crazy brio, though he's nothing compared to Oldman, who overplays the quasi-villainous Father Solomon in a terrifically fascinating way. If you have a stereotype of how classically-trained actors played Shakespeare in the 18th Century, that's about how Oldman functions in the role: it's the kind of performance that one would ordinarily describe in terms that make it sound like a film-saver, but in fact he almost manages to scuttle the film even more. See, as written, Solomon is definitely a driven, crazy bastard, whose religious zeal has turned him into a psychopath. But Oldman will have none of that: his Solomon is a neurotic visionary, strong-willed and smart, terrifyingly self-aware that his morality has been warped but unwilling to fight that because he knows it's the only way. And so all of the plot points that hinge on Solomon being unreasonable and wicked simply do not work.
Unmistakably indifferent to everything she's forced to chaperon, Hardwicke's direction is mostly lazy (hence, for example, her unwillingness to reign in Oldman's devastatingly unbalancing performance; maybe because she knew it was the only interesting thing onscreen, maybe because she didn't care), and tremendously derivative: this is a maddeningly by-the-book medieval picture in almost every possible way, though occasionally she lets out with a particularly smart visual idea, and even though the script's justification for Valerie's red riding hood is laughably undernourished, Hardwicke is able to do some scattered interesting things with that bright splotch of color.
Color is a weird thing in this film: it's been tremendously fucked-about in post-production, but not in the normal ways: it's not as chilly as Twilight, for example, and it's certainly not orange and teal, and it's really not right to say that it's over-saturated, though that comes closer. The best I think I can come up with is to say that it looks digital-ey, like there was a layer of CGI vaseline over the lens at all points. It's disorienting, whatever the case, though in at least one respect it works: Seyfried's skin is almost too beautiful too stand it, clear and glowing and nigh translucent, in a manner befitting a fairy-tale heroine (so at least somebody has shiny skin).
There is a moment when Lukas Haas, in puppy love with Father Solomon and his garish coterie (African swordsmen! a giant bronze elephant!), gasps in delight at the priest's wolf-killing sword: "That is one of only three blessed by the Holy See!" Only three? What the hell is the deal with the other two? Little details like that keep crowding in at the edges of Red Riding Hood, not so much making it a better film as suggesting the better films that are just out of sight. The history of characters we barely meet, the story of the village before the original pact with the werewolf (and how did that pact come to be?); it's a damn shame we get saddled with the low-rent paranoia thriller and lower-rent teen romance that we do, and a damn shame that it ends in the most offensive, Twilight-pandering way imaginable. This is a bad film, and I will not say it didn't have to be a bad film, for it did: but it didn't have to be a bad universe in which to set a film, and there are just enough moments when Hardwicke wakes up, and when Thomas E. Sanders's production design is showed off to best effect, when you can almost see the outlines of a what a better Red Riding Hood might have looked like. Which almost makes this one even harder to endure.