In Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, the village of Daggerhorn has been subject for generations to the horrific whims of a werewolf prowling the nearby woods, and the residents offers animal sacrifices at each full moon to keep the beast’s hunger at bay. But now a local girl has been murdered by the monster, and Daggerhorn’s more courageous (and reckless) men have decided to take revenge. They storm a cave where they think the beast lives and they bring back a wolf’s head on a pike which they believe to be that of their famous werewolf, despite the preaching of Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), a werewolf hunter summoned to the village who claims that the wolf would return to human form once slain—which, of course, is true.
But the villagers would rather drink, dance, and make out with each other than deal with the truth, and the appeal of Red Riding Hood is fully realized in a party sequence complemented by the haunting pulse of a Fever Ray soundtrack which amply sets the tone for a lush after-dark celebration punctuated by sinister torchlight, the village’s dark corners coming alive in flickering shadow. The blond, beautiful, made-for-a-fairy-tale Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), the grieving younger sister of the slain village girl, throws back a mug of mead for courage and makes eyes at a boy who is not her fiancé before stealing away with him to literally roll in the hay (as said fiancé secretly looks on) to the sound of Karin Dreijer Andersson singing “Keep the Streets Empty for Me,” a track which was also used recently in Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats during another poignant scene illustrating the drama produced by love triangles.
But suddenly the werewolf—the real one—pounces, interrupting the festivities and undoubtedly leaving Valerie’s secret lover, Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), with a bad case of blue balls, a condition which the audience can relate to more and more as Red Riding Hood never quite follows through on its early promises. The fact that the most memorable aspect of this particular sequence is the dramatically sexy infusion of Fever Ray’s music, rather than the forbidden love affair or the tragic naiveté of these poor villagers, points to the disconnect between style and substance that ultimately cripples the film. Hardwicke is trying her best, but she can’t overcome the banality of source material even more vacuous and inconsequential than what she had to work with in the first Twilight film, which was a more successful effort at bringing the angsty trappings of adolescent paranormal romance to the big screen.
In Red Riding Hood, Valerie is being courted by the village’s two hottest young lads, but rather than reveling in what must be every teenage girl’s dream (as evidenced by the ubiquity of this particular plot device in this new giant of a genre), she’s forced, instead, to spend all her time worrying that one of them might be a werewolf—while also dodging accusations of witchcraft and dealing with some dark family secrets. The ultimate revelation of the werewolf’s identity and motives is annoyingly tidy, revealed in a half-assed series of flashbacks which finally answer the question of why Valerie is the central figure of this story. But the film’s final image is so decadent and haunting—combined with highlights such as Julie Christie’s performance as the aloof and mysterious grandmother, along with the rich opening and closing montages of breathtaking landscape shots punctuated with gothic touches—that you sometimes realize you’re enjoying yourself despite your better judgment. In the end, Red Riding Hood is sort of like a hook-up that you remember more or less fondly but still would never tell your friends about.