Red Riding Hood, the new film from Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke, retells the classic story with dysfunctional medieval families and werewolves. Spiked with a witty, goth-girl bitchiness, this flick goes over the top into awesome.
Sometimes this flick feels like a love letter to Team Jacob. At last, the girl can be alone with werewolf, and no vampires are there to interfere.
Red Riding Hood is set in a nebulously medieval era, in a town at the edge of a spooky forest. It's the kind of place where the villagers ward off werewolf attacks with animal sacrifices during the full Moon, and where a young woman named Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is plotting to escape from her impending arranged marriage. Though her potential husband is a hot blacksmith who makes cool jewelry for her, she's always loved the broody woodsman Peter.
We're immediately tipped off that this flick is more horror than romance when we meet Valerie and Peter as children, hunting for rabbits. Valerie, it seems, has no compunction about slaughtering cute bunnies with a knife. There's something badass about this girl, despite her golden locks and big blue eyes. It's no surprise that she can explain to her grandmother, later, why her future marriage is unacceptable: "I don't feel like I'm about to get married. I feel like I'm being sold." But just as she's about to pack up and leave with Peter, tragedy strikes: Her sister is killed by the local werewolf, who is suddenly no longer satisfied with animal sacrifices. When the wolf attacks again - looking convincingly menacing, despite the usual CGI drawbacks - Valerie discovers that she understands what he's saying.
"I want you to come with me," he growls, staring at her with alarmingly human eyes. If she doesn't go away with him, he promises to slaughter everyone in town.
Thus is our story set in motion, with Valerie caught between two young men and a very angry, extremely large wolf. Things get more complicated when infamous monster hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) arrives, swathed in a purple velvet Inquisition dress and flanked inexplicably by a pair of African lieutenants and some Asian ninjas. He's also brought along some weird medieval torture devices, which he uses to drum home his point that the werewolf isn't "out there" in the woods - he lives among the people of the village. The wolf could be "your neighbor, or your wife!" he shrills in a terrifically crazy scene.
Though the Father does know a thing or two about werewolves - such as their ability to "turn" people during the red Moon which is conveniently underway - he's mostly there to remind us that there are human monsters worse than werewolves. It's a slightly odd detour for the film to take, and sometimes it feels like we're getting a bit too much moralizing about the evils of moralizing. Still, this is a small price to pay for what is, overwhelmingly, a deliciously dark ride.
Where Red Riding Hood really shines is in the effortless way it intertwines the werewolf story with the horrific dysfunction that Valerie discovers just beneath the surface of her peaceful family. Her father is a drunk, and her mother's insistence on Valerie's arranged marriage masks a terrible secret. Even her best friends turn out to be craven bitches. There's an incredible scene where the Father, who has discovered Valerie's secret werewolf connection, publicly humiliates her by tying her up in the town square with a metal dog mask on her face. We watch through the eye holes in the mask as one of Valerie's supposed best friends taunts her with a nasty smile on her face. In that instant, we realize that nothing makes more sense than to blend the horror of teenage girls with the horror of flesh-eating monsters.
And this brings me to the film's other strength, which is that director Hardwicke has managed to craft a chick flick that is clearly a horror film. Unlike the widely-misunderstood Jennifer's Body - which was mistakenly marketed to men, and failed accordingly - Red Riding Hood knows that women crave blood and bite marks as much as they crave romance and weepies. Sure, there is a bit of romance in Red Riding Hood, and some steamy rolls in the hay with broody woodsman boy, but horror is the point. The werewolf is the point. The romance part is sort of like the romantic bits in an action movie - they're there so the hero can get kissed, and so we know there's a payoff for her when she's done dealing with serious monster business. I think this may be the first horror-action film that openly acknowledges that women buy the vast majority of tickets to horror films, and that they do it not because they want to snuggle with boyfriends but because they love to be completely creeped out.
The creepiness here comes not just from the head-chomping, but also from the way young women are treated in this tiny, medieval village. They're told to marry whoever their parents want, obey abusive men, and are blamed for their own beauty. At one point, Valerie's future mother in law manages to make the compliment "you're the pretty one" sound like a curse. Still, it's not as if the film is emo. There are jokes throughout that tip us off to the fact that this movie has a sense of humor about itself. I'm glad that Hollywood seems to have figured out that chick flicks can be more interesting and edgy than Sleepless In Seattle or Terms of Endearment.
If you're looking for an arty take on the werewolf flick like Ginger Snaps, then Red Riding Hood may not work for you. But if you want a gothy thrill ride full of violence and sex, then topped off with a nice twist ending, Red Riding Hood will be your weekend fix.