By Scott Martin
Red Riding Hood, USA / Canada, 2011
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
I grew up wanting this film. Not this film, strictly speaking, but what this film could have been. I’ve often said that the most important part of film criticism is to not judge what could have been, but what is, and simply that. I know that I was a fan of the fairy tale from a young age, even to this day, and I know that the film I always wanted to see made from it was more The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), a truly terrific and terrifying film, and less Twilight (2008), which I enjoy, for what it’s worth. But what we got was Twilight, not The Ghost and the Darkness.
What sets them apart is this: Red Riding Hood could have been a film about a wolf hunt, about the strength of family, and a feminist’s wet dream. Instead, it wound up being a teenage love story between an outsider and a pretty girl, and a whodunit about a werewolf. A careful distinction: the original “Little Red Riding Hood” story is almost exactly like the former, and Catherine Hardwicke’s version is exactly like the latter. Remember that Catherine Hardwicke gave us the first Twilight. She almost ruined that, and she did ruin this. Beyond repair.
I feel like I need to make some full disclosure. In 2002, almost ten years ago now, I saw (twice) what I’ve since considered the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a film called Pumpkin, a sorority satire about a young pledge who falls in love with a mentally handicapped athlete competing in the local special Olympics. This is a film that tries hard to be something that it cannot be, and that’s the catch when judging a bad film. The glitch in that theory is this: it knows it’s a satire, and it knows it’s offensive. When it tries to circumvent those facts is where the film goes wrong. Having long called that the worst movie ever made, you can imagine my surprise sitting through Red Riding Hood, and watching a fervent belief of mine for the last nine years be shattered.
Red Riding Hood is a film that takes itself as seriously as Shakespeare. A young woman named Valerie (played with coyness and blank stares by Amanda Seyfried) lives in a village terrorized by a werewolf. How do they know it’s a werewolf? We don’t get that answer. Some villagers refer to it as just a wolf, but another gets the bright idea to call in a werewolf slayer named Father Solomon (played with, I suppose, zeal by Gary Oldman and one of his many accents). Valerie is in love with an outsider poor kid named Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) but is pretty much sold into marriage by her parents to another boy named Henry (Max Irons). Father Solomon, being Father Solomon, tells the villagers that it is indeed a werewolf and that one of the villagers is the culprit. He’s right, because the film’s visual clues tells us that from the beginning. Otherwise, there is no evidence to support anything that anyone anywhere has ever said about anything. Ever. Durp.
Another interesting fact about this film – witches aren’t burned at the stake. There are no stakes. Witches are burned inside of Father Solomon’s giant metal elephant, onto which he is pulled into town. A giant metal elephant. On which he is pulled into town. By other people. By Africans, as a matter of fact, so we have a clue as to when this film might take place: around the time of slavery, probably in a country foreign to America. The opening establishing shots don’t tell us this; we have to infer it from the film’s implied racism in the Van Helsing-esque character. Guessing these kinds of facts based on this kind of evidence seems to be the running gag in the film’s production. We don’t know when it takes place, or where it takes place, and no one in the town knows anything about stuff. Okay. Thanks, Catherine Hardwicke.
I can imagine where this movie could have gone right, but I’m saddled with the many places where it went wrong. I will say this, as even Pumpkin had a couple of moments that didn’t make my blood run dry – there are a couple of scenes worth noting: a party scene has a great soundtrack choice, and Billy Burke’s delivery as Cesaire is as good as it’s ever been. But, on the other hand, that party scene makes Valerie out to be a dumb slut, and everything Cesaire says is drenched with idiocy.
This is a film for teenage girls, no doubt, but, the lessons taught here (or at least the characters’ choices and their implications) are dire and dangerous. I wouldn’t let my daughter watch this without a serious discussion afterward, but, to be honest, I hope I will have instilled enough sense in my daughter to not seek out films as desperate as this one for entertainment. I like to think I’ll have the kind of kid who can sit back and re-read the Grimm fairy tale instead, and get just as much out of it. What will always amuse me the most out of this film, however, is that Valerie has a dream where she and her grandmother (Julie Christie) have the “better to eat/see/hear you with” conversation, before the wolf has had anything to do with the grandmother yet. It’s like we’re being reminded of the film’s already obvious roots.
The Brothers Grimm are rolling in their graves.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com