By the time the title character gets pawed by an eager young lad, growling, “I could eat you up,” it’s clear that this isn’t your grandmother’s “Red Riding Hood.” More like your teenage daughter’s, as director Catherine Hardwicke stays firmly in “Twilight” territory with another moony-eyed romantic triangle beset by hellish supernatural complications. Intermittently enjoyable hokum at best, this mostly risible exercise in fairy-tale revisionism could stoke enough young-femme curiosity to post solid if not “Twilight”-threatening numbers, its tepid dramatics, clumsy production values and cupboardful of werewolf cliches be damned.
Reimagining a legend already subject to innumerable changes over the centuries, the script by David Leslie Johnson (“Orphan”) superficially recalls Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” in the way it spins a classic tale into a convoluted whodunit cloaked in small-town superstition and religious paranoia, though “Red Riding Hood” lacks the earlier film’s visual mastery and rich sense of time and place. Seeming willfully anachronistic one moment, distracted and fuzzy-headed the next, the film unfolds in what looks like a medieval European village populated by characters with names like Valerie and Roxanne, played by actors who make no effort to hide their flat American intonations when they say things like, “You’d better watch yourself.”
Yup, you’d better do just that in the isolated hamlet of Daggerhorn, whose residents have kept a big, bad you-know-what at bay for generations by making regular livestock sacrifices. But with the arrival of the red “blood moon,” which apparently occurs once in a blue moon, the wolf has broken the covenant by claiming the life of a young maiden, to the devastation of her parents (Virginia Madsen and “Twilight’s” Billy Burke) and her beautiful, crimson-cloaked sister, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried).
The body count escalates, as does the collective sense of panic, with the arrival of famed lycanthropy expert Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), who warns the villagers that the werewolf dwells among them. When Valerie learns, with a shock, that she can communicate with the monster, she figures it must be someone close to her — possibly her longtime sweetheart, Peter (Shiloh Fernandez); her unloved fiance, Henry (Max Irons); or even her grandmother, played with alternately sweet and sinister overtones by Julie Christie.
Suspicion falls on each principal character like clockwork, yielding plenty of, er, red herrings en route to a solution contrived with a modicum of cleverness. Yet apart from this rigged puzzle, the picture feels under-realized in almost every respect, from its viscerally unsatisfying setpieces to a bland romantic melodrama that suggests a poor man’s Bella, Edward and Jacob. Seyfried and Fernandez enjoy a few stolen kisses and a chaste roll in the hay, but the film never tries to plumb its source’s psychosexual depths in the manner of, say, Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” (filmed by Neil Jordan in 1984).
Hardwicke has shot down the rumor that she was axed from the “Twilight” series, but given her choice of follow-up material, one can’t help but wonder if she was at least partly motivated by the opportunity to wrestle with werewolves on the bigscreen. Alas, the film’s action chops leave much to be desired, and one never gets a really good look at the wolf itself — a shadowy, computer-generated blur that, by dint of a PG-13 rating, is responsible for some of the more bloodless attacks in monster-movie history, all shock cuts, slashing sound effects and the occasional severed hand.
The rare actress who can appear angelic and devilish in the same frame, the luminous Seyfried would seem ideally cast as a sweetly corruptible Red Riding Hood, but the film is loath to jeopardize the viewer’s rooting interest by making her an especially rich or complicated heroine. Oldman, playing an obvious caricature of fire-and-brimstone hysteria, nonetheless brings some declamatory showmanship and an interesting quasi-Slavic accent to the community’s otherwise bland diction. There’s something to be said for allowing actors to speak and emote in their natural patois in a fairy-tale context, but here it serves merely to point up the general absence of magic.
Despite the striking motif of Valerie running up the mountainside, her red cloak trailing behind her in brilliant contrast with the snow, the film’s widescreen lensing of well-mounted Vancouver sets often looks too artificially doctored; occasional gauzy, soft-focus intrusions are less redolent of timeless fantasy than of nature-themed beauty commercials. The anachronistic approach is borne out by a soundtrack that shudders with emo-pop and whispery voiceover, all the better to lure a contempo audience with, my dear.