By Brian Orndorf
Well, it’s officially here. Instead of Hollywood rabidly chasing the success of “Harry Potter” by turning every semi-known kid-lit book into a potential big screen franchise, the powers that be are now consumed with rebuilding the extraordinarily profitable “Twilight” phenomenon. “Red Riding Hood” is the first full-bodied, unabashed rip-off of the sparkly vampire series, doing whatever it can to mirror the romantic fantasy powerhouse, even hiring the director of the original “Twilight” picture, Catherine Hardwicke, to reheat the “magic,” only this time using the forgiving fairy tale milieu to obscure the absurdly obvious trace lines.
In the isolated village of Daggerhorn, the inhabitants have grown accustomed to werewolf attacks, using animal sacrifice as a way of warding off true calamity. Valerie (Amanda Seyfried, looking mortified) is a young girl facing an arranged marriage to stable nobleman Henry (Max Irons), while her heart pines for rugged woodcutter Peter (Shiloh Fernandez). When Valerie’s sister is killed in the night, the town fears a werewolf invasion, turning to hunter Solomon (Gary Oldman) and his team of warriors to come and kill the snarling menace. Instead of salvation, Solomon turns the village into a prison of paranoia and suspicion, with Valerie soon accused of witchcraft, leaving her grandmother (Julie Christie) the only person left she can trust.
With Tim Burton’s 3D “Alice in Wonderland” managing to clear one billion dollars in worldwide box office, it seems the age of fairy tale adaptation is upon us. It’s one thing to reimagine these peculiar fantasies as ornate visual effect extravaganzas, taking full advantage of current technology to translate timeless tales into epic cinema; however, “Red Riding Hood” isn’t aiming to capture the mysterious feel of the folktale. Instead, the feature contorts precious dark whimsy into an unappetizing “Twilight” knock-off, reworking a minimal tale of a red-cloaked girl and her sneaky wolf troubles into a dreamy horror picture, complete with two comatose suitors, forbidden love, and a pronounced teen-bait vibe that shuns classic fairytale posture to slouch and moan, somehow equating this behavior to soulful yearn.
It’s genuinely amazing how readily Hardwicke steals from herself, as if “Red Riding Hood” was a chance to correct everything that went wrong with her original “Twilight” experience. We have the same sweeping remote vistas, a crunchy metallic score, young actors cast strictly for their looks, plenty of syrupy swoon, CG werewolves, and even a “Twilight” cast member blended into the mix, with Bella’s dad, Billy Burke, returning to play…well, Valerie’s dad.
It’s a paint by numbers directing effort from Hardwicke, yet she still manages to twist excruciating familiarity into a thoroughly unbearable drag. Spending more time on her claustrophobic sets than working the film into a sufficient lather, “Red Riding Hood” offers zero tension and less authentic sensuality. It’s abysmal community theater with a juicy budget, displaying a cast in clownish renaissance fair garb spouting truly dreadful lines from screenwriter David Leslie Johnson (the mind behind the equally absurd “Orphan”) as they look to dodge Hardwicke’s spastic camerawork. There’s obvious embarrassment in the air, emerging from an ensemble that’s struggling to retain some trickle of dignity while Hardwicke spends the entirety of the film staging dead-eyed professions of love and inane village monkey business.
The only actor brave enough to push the filmmaker aside is Oldman, but he’s cranked up in full ham mode, screaming and spraying to make an impression, contributing noise instead of preferred hellfire. It’s an easy role for the beloved actor and he knows it, making an absolute stink while the rest of the cast stomps around in a zombified state, courteously waiting for their director to bring on the suspense. Or, at the very least, something substantial to react to.
“Red Riding Hood” pays dreamscape homage to the famous text (“Oh, grandmother, what big eyes you have!”), while filling a few corners of the frame with further fairy tale tributes to feel like it’s done its homework. The rest is more Agatha Christie than Brothers Grimm, with the community pulled apart by accusations when Solomon reveals the werewolf is a shapeshifter. This revelation might suggest a rush of excitement, but in Hardwicke’s hands, the tension never materializes, handed to unqualified actors who look baffled with the artificial world around them. There’s also unfinished business with Valerie and the men in her life, which leads to unconvincing bouts of romantic exchange and an aborted sex scene to keep the tale somewhat chaste, though flush enough to compete with the story’s various lustful interpretations.
“Red Riding Hood” endeavors to provide a visual feast (think a DTV version of Ridley Scott’s sumptuous 1985 fantasy, “Legend”), but there’s not enough scope to explore, and the script rudely insists on steady dialogue to prevent dead air. The editing is equally shameful, jumping around without concern for spatial relationships or rhythm, desperate to make Hardwicke’s inability to accurately mount a motion picture seem exciting. Instead, the feature is relentlessly clumsy; if scenes aren’t aesthetically bungled, they’re a complete bore to watch unfold. In my eyes, Hardwicke hasn’t offered a competent directorial effort to date, with “Red Riding Hood” a new low for the filmmaker. Not only is the feature a total eyesore, but one perfectly content to pilfer from a fad. Trust me, five “Twilight” movies are more than enough.