Thanks, no doubt, to careful planning and probably to nobody’s surprise, Red Riding Hood is not much more than Twilight set in a school-play style Middle Ages. Amanda Seyfried plays Valerie, a village girl fascinated by the local bad boy but betrothed to a nice ‘un by her social-climbing parents (Virginia Madsen and Billy Burke, who by crazy coincidence plays the heroine’s father in the Twilight movies). As if this local romantic dilemma weren’t bad enough, the village is suffering from the bloody depredation of a werewolf. Even this is a special problem for Valerie, since the werewolf likes to corner her and hold conversations that nobody else can hear.
A sort of Werewolf Finder General comes to town (played by Gary Oldman with surprising self-control, relatively speaking) and helps wreak bloody havoc by daring his hairy opponent to attack, but the romantic element is never entirely off-screen. The filmmakers paint themselves into a corner by making the werewolf malicious, as well as ferocious, but in turns out they’ve left themselves an out, too. Valerie gets to defeat her werewolf and have one, too.
Catherine Hardwicke, who was removed from the series after directing the first Twilight, directs with far more control here than she has in the past. Her non-stop camera gyrations are here often replaced with a more relaxed shooting style that at least gets through exposition and romantic moments without herniating.
Red Riding Hood shares its essential problem with most of American horror films of the last 30 or 35 years: It’s about sex and only sex. The contemporary trend started in England with the movies made by Hammer and, to a lesser extent, Amicus. Bosoms heaved more heavily, cleavage clove more readily than ever before. But that’s not all that the movies were about. The first three or four Dracula films exerted considerable energy playing out the real-world drama between modern reason and traditional beliefs, with reason struggling eventually successfully to assert itself. The Frankenstein series neatly reversed the argument, giving us a brilliant doctor who follows his reasoning to the point of madness and who is ultimately defeated by two of the most primal, unreasonable emotions: Love and fear.
You can go back even further and see that sex, while usually present, is never alone in horror movies. Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) was released only 13 years after the end of WWI and was based on a play which had been written and performed in the 1920s. Whatever else he was, the vampire was a reminder to the Anglo-American audience of the bloody entrapments of Old Europe and its bizarre traditions. Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) almost, but not quite, reduced sex to a footnote, as its hero underwent a hallucinatory terror that introduces him to the inevitability of aging and death.
There are the occasional exceptions, although gore films are not among them. These intestine-rippers have simply found another way to express virginal curiosity about the body, how it works, and just exactly what is in there.
George Romero and David Cronenberg are the only filmmakers who can reliably be counted upon to unearth the riches that lay beneath the dead and the monstrous. John Carpenter could at one time, but he seems to be in some sort of career funk. And it’s hard to count Joe Dante, since his genius at satire controls his films.
As sure as death, though, someone with fresh ideas will have to come along eventually.