Having been dumped rather unceremoniously from the “Twilight” film series, after bringing a respectable adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s first book to the big screen, director Catherine Hardwicke came up with a rather droll response: She bundled the same elements into a fresh (but familiar) package, apparently hoping to kick-start her OWN franchise.
So, while this new “Red Riding Hood” ostensibly is drawn from the Charles Perrault/Brothers Grimm fairy tale, David Johnson’s script actually is a swoony, Gothic-style romance set in the medieval times of a world not quite our own, with a plucky young heroine torn between the two young men who love her, while their village is beset by a ferocious, magical creature.
Although the many coincidences can’t be accidental, Hardwicke’s film has its own merits. For starters, production designer Thomas E. Sanders has done VERY impressive work with this story’s setting: the isolated township of Daggerhorn, a rough-hewn clutch of wooden dwellings nestled amid the dark and scary woods that completely surround its citizens. The trees themselves are malevolent, their trunks sprouting long, spiky thorns just waiting to impale the unwary or careless.
Life would be difficult under the best of circumstances, but Daggerhorn has long been plagued by its own additional menace: a marauding werewolf that has inspired a ritual of dread in all these people. Inclined to be superstitious by nature — these are, we must remember, unenlightened times — the townsfolk slaughter their prize livestock each full moon, as an offering to the beast, in the hopes that this will prevent it from killing people.
As the story opens, this uneasy “arrangement” seems to have worked for many years, during which the werewolf hasn’t decreased the local population. But just as we’re introduced to our heroine, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), the beast strikes again, claiming the life of Valerie’s sister. This ghastly event forestalls Valerie’s intention to run away with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), the somewhat wild young man she has loved her entire life.
This rather reckless plan seemed like Valerie’s only course of action, because her parents — Cesaire (Billy Burke) and Suzette (Virginia Madsen) — have decreed that she is to marry Henry (Max Irons), scion of the town’s wealthiest family.
Romantic complications are shunted aside, briefly, as Valerie and her parents mourn; the community’s men, their courage emboldened by too much strong drink, mount a hunting party and set out to kill the beast. Having tracked the creature to its cavernous, mountainside lair, the men crowd into the central chamber, which subsequently divides into different passageways, which then divide again.
“Let’s split up,” some poor fool suggests.
That line is the first indication that Hardwicke isn’t quite sure how to play these events. This film is by no means a comedy, and yet, more than once, some of these characters are held up for ridicule. Hardwicke must have known that those three words — the ultimate horror flick cliché — would elicit contemptuous giggles, and yet she let them remain. Why?
The townsfolk encounter the beast, of course; not all of them return home alive. But the survivors do arrive with the head of a rather ordinary wolf on a pike. Longtime movie fans, perhaps remembering the similarly mundane shark caught and killed, early on, in “Jaws” — and what still followed — will know that the villagers’ elation is premature.
This foolish optimism is further deflated by the arrival of Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), a famed werewolf hunter summoned by Daggerhorn’s priest, Father Auguste (Lukas Haas). Father Solomon, a sorcery-sniffing zealot of the witch-burning school, mocks the villagers for their ignorance: Obviously the werewolf, which assumes human form except for that one day each month, is living among them. It’s a friend … a neighbor … perhaps even a family member.
Hardwicke handles this element of her film quite well: teasing, tantalizing and playing games with Valerie, and with us. Various suspects come into play, not the least of whom is Valerie’s doting grandmother (Julie Christie) who, rather oddly, lives alone in a house that sits outside the village walls. And yes, Johnson finds a clever way to work in the famous line: “Grandmother … what big eyes you have!”
The scenery-chewing Oldman makes a great villain. In his own self-righteous way, Father Solomon is just as great a threat as the werewolf: perhaps even more so, because the villagers are inclined to trust a man of the cloth, despite his cruel abuses. Christie brings an air of regal dignity to her role, while also adding a mischievous element: far better and more subtly delivered, than some of Johnson’s ill-advised efforts at comic relief.
To his credit, though, Johnson constructs a clever back-story that ultimately explains much, starting with why Valerie’s sister meets her tragic end. But despite the care with which all these elements are assembled, massive chunks of the saga fall apart once we DO finally learn the werewolf’s identity, and witness what follows. Earlier details no longer make sense.
Mostly, though, the central love triangle between Valerie, Peter and Henry just isn’t very interesting. This isn’t Seyfried’s fault; as always is the case, she brings more to the party than can be found on the script’s printed page. Seyfried invariably makes her characters interesting; consider how much charm and emotional heft she gave last year’s lightweight “Letters to Juliet,” where she held her own against the always imposing Vanessa Redgrave. Similarly, Seyfried’s Valerie is a captivating and resourceful heroine, and she deserves credit for the degree to which we take this film seriously.
Sadly, the men in Valerie’s life aren’t her equal. Both Fernandez and Irons are bland and boring, as are their characters.
Ultimately, despite its completely credible environment, rich atmosphere and a few stand-out performances, this film is less than the sum of its uneven parts. Tossing a werewolf into the “Red Riding Hood” mythos is intriguing — and even historically valid — but Hardwicke’s effort pales in comparison to “The Company of Wolves,” director Neil Jordan’s vastly superior 1984 riff on the same legend. Now, THAT is a strange, wonderful and sensuously charged adult fairy tale, rather than a been-there/done-that echo of a pallid saga about sparkly vampires and honorable werewolves.
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Billy Burke, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Julie Christie, Virginia Madsen, Lukas Haas
Rating: PG-13, for violence, flashes of grue and brief sensuality