Red Riding Hood
Review by Mike Finkelstein
For a while I've been trying to come up with a way to write a review of this film, Red Riding Hood. My problem isn't the film itself -- it's a basic werewolf film slapped onto the Young Adult movie template -- but that I generally like to try and find some way to add context, or discussion, to a film as I go over it. What was going on at the time? What kind of legacy did the film have? What other factors make it interesting to discuss? But a film like Red Riding Hood defies most of those talking points. It's a film that so aggressively mediocre that it's neither fun to watch because it's bad nor enjoyable to watch because it's good. It simply exists.
I can understand how this film was spawned, at least: coming out at the height of Twilight fever (and right around the release of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1), this film was clearly made to appeal to the teenage girls that were swooning over pretty boys who also happened to be monsters. But I don't think the magic of Twilight (what little there is) is from the monsters specifically but the unrequited love between the leads, the, "if I let myself go I'll kill you so, instead, I must love you from afar." Certainly, once the leads of that vampire epic got together the films became even less interesting than they already had been (astoundingly so).
Red Riding Hood doesn't manage that same balance. Coating itself in the artful veneer of a period piece, it does still try to build the bones of a similar YA-friendly epic: the youthful female lead, a love triangle for her to become entangled within, and a monster lurking around the edges. But the love story here is less sketched in than even Twilight managed, and the monster is more of a force of malevolence, an external threat that changes everyone around it. Red Riding Hood is more horror movie than YA film, but it was clearly shot and engineered to appeal to the tweens and note the gore-hounds. That leaves the film failing on both fronts without appealing to, well, anyone really.
In the movie we're introduced to Valerie, a young girl (played here by Megan Carpenter) who likes the son of a wood cutter, Peter (played as a young boy by DJ Greenburg). The two would often go off into the woods, having their own adventures, this despite the fact that Valerie "needs to be a good girl", a proper young lady. She doesn't really ever lose her edge and once she grows up (to be played by Amanda Seyfried), all she wants is to run off into the woods with her love, Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), so they could be happy together forever.
Events, though, conspire to keep the young lovers apart. The town, for years, had been terrorized by a werewolf that would attack the townspeople if they went out at night. Valerie's sister, though, was attacked by the wolf during the day and, when her body was discovered, Valerie's mother, Suzette (Virginia Madsen) makes Valerie honor her sister's betrothal to (bland and boring) Henry (Max Irons), the son of the wealthy town leader. Suzette even talks to Peter, telling him to leave Valerie alone so she can have the life she deserves, a request he (stupidly) honors. But the werewolf isn't gone and as the fear builds in the town, more and more people start to wonder if someone could be luring the werewolf in. That's the suspicion of Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), a werewolf hunter that comes to the town, and his first instinct is to point his finger at Valerie. Could it be that she has a connection to the wolf? And who will fighter for her against the word of the Church?
I think there's some merit in the idea of mashing a werewolf proper into the story of "Little Red Riding Hood". A big and nasty wolf that eats people and tries to lure prey into his traps does sound like potential fodder for a werewolf story, and its seems like something so obvious you have to wonder why we don't have more werewolf stories playing off this idea. I like the idea of the town gripped by fear of the wolf, willing to turn on each other (especially our virginal heroine) out of that fear, as that ratchets up tension... or, at least, should. Conceptually there's a lot that could work in this movie.
I suspect, in fact, that this script was originally written to be much more of a horror movie and less a YA film. The bones of a solid, creepy film where the monsters are the townspeople (with a fair amount of early gore from the wolf) all seem to be here. The issue comes from the YA template, how it's applied and what it does to the movie. Essentially, by becoming a YA film tuned to that audience, PG-13 rating and all, the film loses all its energy, becoming a very staid, rather tedious, film about young lovers where a werewolf just happens to be prowling around the edges.
It's not the fault of the lead actress as Seyfried does what she can with her underwritten role. The actress has fire, playing Valerie like a self-possessed, and very feisty, young woman. I honestly don't think Seyfried could tamp down that sparkle in her eye as it's a part of every performance I've seen her give, but it works here as it makes Valerie far more interesting on screen than on the page. Counter to that, though, is basically everyone else in the film who are all, by and large, tedious. Either they don't have the spark to stand opposite to Seyfried -- as is the case with both Peter's actor Fernandez, as well as Henry's lover Irons -- or they're clearly just giving paycheck performances in a mid-teir YA film. Only Oldman has nothing approaching the spark of Seyfried, but his character is even more one-note and less interesting and even Oldman can't save that mess.
The fact that neither of the actors playing opposite Seyfried have her level of acting talent, her spark, means that the whole love-triangle plot line barely plays at all. Peter gets more time with Valerie so he seems like the obvious choice for her. Henry, by contrast, barely has any time with the girl and he's given absolutely no personality by Irons. He's played as little more than an animate slab of meat when the film really needs him to give something, anything, to make him an interesting choice for Valerie. I'm sure the character wasn't all that interesting in the original script but was elevated so the film could have is obligatory love tangle, but it just doesn't work. Henry should have been dumped as a character and the focus should have been on Valerie, Peter, and the wolf.
I don't know if that would save this film, mind you, as what we really need is a commitment to an R-rating and the willingness to actually explore the horror of this situation. A thriller made with these bones (picked clean by a wolf) would be intriguing, dare I even say fun. This film, though, lacks all of that. It's made watchable by sheer force of will of Seyfried alone and, even in that regard, it can only go so far. Were the actress not in this film it would have been little better than an Asylum direct-to-video release. With her in it the film still sucks but it has one bright spot that gets you through to the end.
Still, end of the day, this movie just isn't worth watching. it's not interesting, remarkable, or fun. It's just a bland trod through a werewolf story that could have been something more.