We went to see Red Riding Hood last night. It’s really not anywhere near as bad as reviews–or the Tomatometer–would make you think. In fact, most of it was great fun. Oh, no art here–but the acting was actually pretty decent and the story mostly struck a good balance between cliche and surprise. However, to explain both what was good about it and, crucially, where they totally f’ed up, is gonna involve spoilers. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum, but it will give some things away. You have been warned.
Red Riding Hood starts out promisingly enough, as your basic horror thrill ride: we have an archetypal mountain village, isolated in winter, with a werewolf on the prowl. The characters are mostly straight out of central casting, but, in this case, that’s a good thing. You quickly get a handle on the many characters of the village, and the film doesn’t have to spend time introducing anyone beyond the core few.
And the few characters who are developed are interesting, often slight twists on what you’d expect. For example, the town priest is pious, yes, but also personable and young–without being naive. He is swayed by the authority, reputation, and commanding presence of Father Solomon, and werewolf hunter called in, but the actor clearly portrays that he is not blinded to Father Solomon’s faults, or unquestioningly accepting of his methods. Nor does that character go to the opposite-extreme cliche of the doubting priest who has lost his faith–at no point is there any indication that he has any lack of faith in God or God’s plan, even as he question’s Father Solomon’s decisions.
The heroine’s best friend turns out to be almost mercurial, but in a way that felt to me more like a teenage girl in trying times, than like bad writing. The details of how she shifts in attitudes and behavior felt natural, given the circumstances.
You’ve probably already heard that Grandma is well-played. Well played is an understatement–she’s the gem of the show. Throughout the movie, right up until the reveal, the filmmakers play with her role: is she the wolf? a protecting figure? simply hiding some other secret? And they do it well–it’s never so heavy-handed as to annoy, neither do they outright lie to the viewer.
In a pleasant surprise, both of the heroine’s suitors are good people. But not transparently so. The movie makes it clear that (1) either of them (though more likely one than the other) could be the werewolf and (2) regardless, they’re both good people, who genuinely care for her, and (3) whose only real animosity towards one another is over this rivalry. So often, the rivals in a love triangle, especially in film, are cliched opposites, usually with the “right one” and the “expected one” clearly delineated to the audience right from the start. Her betrothed isn’t a cad, undeserving of her affections. Neither is her beloved simply either a bad boy she’d be better off without, or a perfect soulmate trapped in shabby circumstances. Like real people, he’s a bit of both, with some other aspects to his personality, too. And both characters reveal more of themselves as the movie unfolds, sometimes explaining, sometimes furthering the mystery.
Enough about the characters; on to the plot. As I said, the supporting characters are mostly cliches out of central casting, given distinctiveness only in proportion to their number of spoken lines. Likewise, the plot has clearly been assembled from a set of stock components. But, as with the characters, the writers did a good job of knowing when to use familiarity, and when to surprise the viewer. With two, glaring exceptions.
One I will spill explicitly, because it doesn’t spoil the plot of the movie at all: At one point, the heroine actually has the dialogue with Grandma that is had with the wolf dressed as grandma in the fairy tale: “Grandma, my what big eyes you have.” “The better to see you with.” etc. On the upside, it’s a dream sequence, and this is after both she and the audience have begun to suspect that Grandma is, in fact, the werewolf, so it doesn’t break suspension of disbelief. On the downside, it really feels forced–there are lots of little nods to the fairy tale origins of this movie, but this is the only one where the filmmakers say “See? This is from the fairy tale! You remember this part? It’s when grandma turns out to really be the wolf. Isn’t it clever how we worked it into our story? Aren’t we awesome!” while jumping up and down and pointing and drawing big red marker circles on the screen. [Not literally, but it sure feels that way.] And any audience member that hasn’t figured out by that point in the movie that Grandma might be the werewolf is too young to be in the theater. Simply leaving the brief dream sequence out entirely would lose nothing, and improve the movie significantly–it feels forced and is therefore jarring.
The other failing of the film is much less forgivable, and far more intrusive: the ending. Yes, essentially the entirety of it. This part gets much more spoilery–I won’t actually give it away, but if you like being in the dark about even the mere presence or absence of twists and surprises, you better stop reading now.
OK, for those still here: Up until about 10min from the end, the movie is cruising along great. We’ve had scares and thrills, some questions have been answers and others averted, there’s been karmic justice and random tragedy, and we still don’t have any better idea who the werewolf is. As it should be. And then we get the big reveal, and it’s just about the only significant character that there have been no hints pointing towards. In fact, the filmmakers have cheated, using camera angles and cuts to make sure they didn’t appear in any of the scenes where they should have–including in cases where we saw other characters reacting to their presence. And I don’t just mean in the “fair” sense, such as seeing only a shadow as the person leaves, so the other characters don’t know, either. At one point, a character starts, presumably due to suspecting the werewolf’s presence. Half-a-dozen other people are present, any one of which could’ve been the reason for the start–in fact, most of the leading contenders from the audience’s POV are there. Letting the viewer see the actual werewolf at this point wouldn’t’ve spoiled the surprise, in fact, it might not’ve even been noticed. After all, there were several people there, some of whom seemed much more likely. But not showing us at all is just a cheat. Similarly, a clue early on is the werewolf’s eye color. And yet this is one of the few characters that neither the heroine nor the viewer gets to look closely in the eyes. Or, rather, it is likely that the heroine does, but it’s not a visually-focal event, as many other meetings of the gaze are.
This movie is structured as much as a mystery as it is horror. And yet the filmmakers make it impossible for the viewer to possible figure out the mystery central to its plot, by denying us the key clues, while lacing every single scene with red herrings. They should give us more credit. They could’ve had a few clues pointing to the true werewolf in amongst all the red herrings, and it would have been every bit as thrilling and every bit as puzzling. Likely still no one would have identified the werewolf, and yet we wouldn’t feel cheated when the big reveal comes at the end.
After that failing, the ending then goes on to take the less-interesting turn twice more, in the span of just those last two, short scenes. Up until then, it had taken the unexpected turn on many an occasion–just enough to keep the viewer guessing, but not so much that it lost the power of the familiarity of the underlying story and common tropes. Twice, it sets up the possibility of Red Riding Hood voluntarily becoming a werewolf, and twice it takes the “safe” way out instead, turning what could have been an edgier, possibly even female-empowering, conclusion into the usual teen romance drivel. I’ve heard this movie compared to the Twilight films but, honestly, up until the very ending, I thought it actually managed to avoid implausible romance and a passive girl in favor of something else. But, wow, did the ending disappoint.
That said, I’d still recommend the film, and recommend it on the big screen, but maybe not at full price. It could have been better, but it’s much, much better than Rotten Tomatoes makes it out to be, and I certainly enjoyed myself. Just don’t expect high art–this is a rollicking frolic through horror cliches and mystery tropes, with a dash of teen romance thrown in for seasoning.