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Red Riding Hood

To appreciate Red Riding Hood as a horror film, you have to put yourself into the mindset of a 13-year-old girl. Scared yet? Because that's all to find frightening in Catherine Hardwicke's follow-up/cash-in-on to Twilight. If you actually are a 13-year-old girl reading this, go no further, because you will only think I just don't get it.

Oh, but I do. I get that romance doesn't really have to make sense but does have to be filled with long lingering looks. I get that to the audience for such stories, smoldering is more important than storytelling. I get that no one ever went broke underestimating a demographic's hunger for projects that seem like the project they loved in the first place.

But I also get that Hardwicke is not untalented, and that Red Riding Hood could have tried a little harder and served a larger audience. It wouldn't have brought about world peace, but it could have brought male nerds in enough so that they would not be as terrified and resentful this summer at Comic-Con when Hall H is swarmed for the Breaking Dawn panel.

Unlike the first Twilight movie, Red Riding Hood has charisma squandered all over the place. Resetting the fairy tale in a fear-drenched but heavily populated village somewhere in Upper Europitania, the movie quickly establishes a sumptuous storybook look. Sometimes that makes it look like the characters are all in a quaint theme park, but the design is at least consistent and cool.

At the center of the story with bigger eyes than Grandma sits Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), a blonde beauty who some of the other village girls consider stuck-up. Though Valerie loves the handsome yet penniless woodcutter Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), her parents have betrothed her to the silversmith Henry (Max Irons).

Just as Valerie and Peter plan to run away romantically, her sister's body is discovered, torn by the werewolf. For indeed, the villagers have long kept truce with this supernatural beast by offering it livestock every full moon, but for some reason, it has chosen to break the peace.

Some believe in hunting it directly; Father Auguste (Lukas Haas – hmm, another actor with such big eyes) has called in an expert from the Church. Just in case the wolf prefers ham -- seriously, the three little pigs do get referenced – the Church sends Gary Oldman as Father Solomon, the only actor attempting a vaguely European accent and willing to not take this seriously.

When Solomon reveals that the wolf must be someone already in the village, all hell breaks loose, but not before a wild bacchanalia to make sure that everyone is really too drunk to fight back adequately. And it also provides for a ritual dance sequence in which the romantic triangle gets brought to a sweaty climax, involving one of the first recorded occasions of "dirty dancing" in medieval history.

It should just run pell mell to the end, but Hardwicke does understand her audience. Red Riding Hood builds slowly, and moves slowly, because it's the waiting that her audience wants. It's all about anticipation, even though Oldman keeps putting it all out there in every scene he has.

What really matters is how pretty everything is. The CG werewolf is big, bad, and terrifically sleek, admittedly much better looking than the wolves of New Moon. So what if it has blood dripping from its teeth? It's so hot.

The young leads, too, are chosen for how well they steam. It's just coincidence that Seyfried might be able to act, too. It's up to the ancillary actors to carry the real dramatic weight; the young just have to be melodramatic.

That's a clear division in ability and pay grades, as in addition to Oldman – a great actor happily chewing scenery – the movie has Haas, Virginia Madsen and Julie Christie working to provide detail on the sides of the picture.

Then there's a mid-level, which I found distracting, that says "oh, it must be off-season for the SyFy Channel." Michael Shanks (Stargate, Smallville), Michael Hogan (Battlestar Galactica, Smallville) and Adrian Holmes (Smallville, BSG, V) all give sincere television performances in what should be a larger vista.

Just to finish off the Twilight comparison, Hardwicke even cast Bella's dad, Billy Burke, as Valerie's father. For the most part, it's even the same kind of role, befuddled but kindly and concerned. The difference here is longer hair and the ability to blend in at a Renaissance Faire, something Sheriff Charlie Swan could never do.

To give the movie a little more weight, there's also a subplot about how all the other girls of the village secretly resent Valerie for her beauty and her independence, but ultimately that peters out, so that the wolf can have its cake and eat it, too.

The violence stays fairly bloodless, but Hardwicke choreographs the attacks artfully. Sometimes the movie feels restrained by the PG-13 rating, but then, an R wouldn't have let its target audience see it.

Despite occasional flashes of being something more than it needed to be, Red Riding Hood turns out to have big eyes, but only a few teeth.

Derek McCaw

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