Once upon a time in the West...

Reel Time
Dale Hill

            Once upon a time, in a faraway land between the mountains and the sea, there was a town inhabited entirely by storytellers. These storytellers would gather every day around a simple lunch of  artichoke-shrimp frittata and Vittel water, and discuss new ways to change old stories. Recently, one of those conversations went something like this:

            “Seems like all we got are vampires and werewolves and zombies. Can't somebody come up with some new supernatural threat, fercripessake?”

            “We had Transformers...”

            “Yeah, and they transformed; big deal. Everybody over age eight hated 'em. We need something that bleeds.”

            “Hey, there's that fairy tale about the kid and the wolf...”

            “Wolves! You mean werewolves, right?”

            “Yeah, but this time instead of having a whole family of 'em, we'll just have one!”

            “That's different... But doesn't he eat the kid? Can't do that with a G rating.”

            “So we don't go for a G – we make the kid a luscious nubile maiden all ready for her you-know-what, and give her a shirtless young hunk for a boyfriend...”

            “It's been done, so we'll give her TWO shirtless young hunks to fight over her – that'll get us a PG13, but it'll be worth it.”

            “Now yer talkin'! And maybe one o' them is the werewolf!”

            “Yeah – THAT'll confuse the audience!”


            The upshot of that lunch session was the new movie “Red Riding Hood,” which sounds like “Twilight,” and has the same director, but who's counting? Of course the script went through many more story conferences, gathering accretions like a lazy stone gathers moss. Among these were:

·         A village full of Central European peasants who are as thick as two short planks and who can't wait to rush off and do the wrong thing.

·         Gary Oldman as the Werewolf-finder General, who arrives speaking the silliest accent ever invented by a dialect coach: Macedonian? Mongolian? Balinese? Your guess is as good as mine.

·         A big bronze elephant. It's the Finder's main implement of torture, and it looks like he picked it up in Bali, along with the accent.

·         Grandmother, played by Julie Christie, who isn't capable of a bad performance, but still looks like she'd sell her own grandmother to be sipping a Pimm's Cup on her terrace in the Cotswolds.

            This admittedly handsome farrago was directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first “Twilight” movie, thus proving to Hollywood producers that she has a way with teen-age girls' anxieties and obsessions, and a great eye for utilizing misty, mountainous landscapes. Both of these talents are in evidence in “Red Riding Hood,” which is always pretty to look at even when the cast are wrestling with an unwieldy and inept script. (When trudging through the wolf's cavern, one of the search party actually says, “Let's split up.”) Peppered with frequent “OKs,” but fortunately no “GROOVYs,” said script sounds like an improv exercise at a really uncaring Renaissance Faire.

            The village where all this takes place is a dead ringer for the place where Gepetto lives in Disney's “Pinocchio,” which means it's in the Südtirol and it's as cute as it can be – in 500 years or so the tourist buses will be rolling in. The way we know it's on a sound stage is that the none of the peasants wear coats outdoors even though it's snowing all the time.

            Amanda Seyfried, the impossibly perfect blonde from “Mean Girls” and “Mamma Mia!” is Valerie, the burgeoning adolescent who wears the red cape of the title. She's affianced to Henry (Max Irons), the deadly dull son of the wealthy (!) blacksmith, while she really wants to carry on with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), the poor but really, really hot woodcutter. (That's Valerie's evaluation; I doubt that you'll see much choice between the two.)

            When the Werewolf-finder drops the clanger that the werewolf must be someone living in the village, it starts everyone, including us, looking over our shoulders: could it be HIM? or even HER?          Publicity for the movie says the writer (David Leslie Johnson) went to Bruno Bettelheim's “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales” for inspiration. If he did, he only used a few passing mentions of plot points that predate both the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, such as the Wolf getting Red Riding Hood to eat part of her grandmother, or some oedipal twists that Bettelheim (a confirmed Freudian) stresses. But the narrative degenerates into a simplistic mystery: who, oh WHO is the werewolf?

            Bettelheim's analysis is fascinating, even though they don't use it, and it's worth a look:

            “Little Red Cap [the German title] externalizes the inner processes of the pubertal child: the wolf is the externalization of the badness the child feels when he goes contrary to the admonitions of his parents and permits himself to tempt, or to be tempted, sexually. When he strays from the path the parent has outlined for him, he encounters 'badness,' and he fears that it will swallow up him, and the parent whose confidence he has betrayed...”

            Interesting stuff, and more interesting if the “Red Riding Hood” filmmakers had explored it deeply. Instead, they have glanced at a few of the sensational bits and let it go. If you want a truly creepy experience that plumbs some of our darkest recesses, rent Neil Jordan's 1984 “The Company of Wolves,” based on a story by Angela Carter, who co-wrote the screenplay. This is a frank but subtle sexual interpretation of the old story, with enough eerie, moving, and honestly alarming touches to keep you gasping up to, and after, the end. It seems the producers of “Red Riding Hood” had forgotten that “The Company of Wolves” was ever made.