Sunday, May 6, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor*, (2) good
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure*, (2) *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: (1) *sociological,* (2) *psychological, metaphysical, sociological*

These two films play upon the mythology of the “Red Riding Hood” folktale, though the treatments are as far apart as mountain and valley.

“Werewolf hunters” don’t have as detailed a lineage in the cinema as “vampire hunters.” Still, the basic idea of RED: WEREWOLF HUNTER could have been a worthy addition to the former pack.  RED’s titular heroine is a member of a family of werewolf hunters, introduced to the viewer by a sound narrative device: Red falls in love with a young outsider.  She brings him to her woodsy home with the intention of telling her all about herself and her family’s anti-werewolf crusade.  Unfortunately for Red, there’s a new werewolf in town.  Unlike others of his breed he possesses the power to change at will, rather than being subject to the moon’s phases.  He uses that power to gather a cult of his fellow shape-changers.

Unfortunately, though RED is set up to promise kickass thrills, neither the FX nor the fight-choreography is ever more than pedestrian.  This might have been forgivable had the script done anything interesting with the relationship between Red, Red’s family, and her outsider-boyfriend.  But none of the heroes are given more than cursory characterization.  Early in the story the boyfriend is bitten by the werewolf, which exacerbates the family’s hostility to him as an outsider.  But the script doesn’t do anything with the conflict, though Red’s mother tells a tragic story of losing her husband to werewolf-ism.  The overall story is perhaps a little better than the average Syfy-Channel film, but not by much.

RED RIDING HOOD, however, delivers a complex, free-form take on the essentials of the Riding Hood tale.

In the original folktale the entire action centers upon “Grandma’s House.” HOOD’s script, with the aid of skillful direction by Catherine (TWILIGHT) Hardwicke, builds a taut and imaginative tale around Daggerhorn, a small medieval community constantly harried by both natural wolves and werewolves.

The central character is a young woman named Valerie.  She’s first seen as a child, disobeying her mother’s commandment to “come right home.” Instead she holds a clandestine meeting with Peter, a boy of the same age, and with the same tendency to rebel, as they go hunting in the forbidding forest.  This scene merely establishes the tension between the village and its individual members, for then the film shoots forward, showing us Valerie and Peter at a marriageable age.  The lure of money impedes their marriage, as Valerie’s parents want her to marry Henry, a young man of greater substance.

As described the situation sounds stock-in-trade.  But Hardwicke uses dozens of careful details to make the community of Daggerhorn seem like a natural habitat, in which the tensions of people living together symbolically birth the spectre of “the wolf.”  In medieval folklore the werewolf was the threat from within, a member of one’s community who manages to conceal his lust to turn rogue and maim his fellows like an animal.  Hardwicke consistently exploits that metaphor to good dramatic effect.

While Valerie and Peter face their personal crisis, the community as a whole is menaced by new wolf-attacks.  Some locals believe that a werewolf is once more their nemesis, and send to another city to gain help from a famed killer of werewolves, Father Solomon (Gary Oldman).  Before the father arrives, a group of young men, including Peter and Henry, stalks the marauder and succeeds in killing a real wolf.  However, when Solomon arrives, he declares that a werewolf is still out there.  Moreover, he voices for the first time the idea that the werewolf lives amid the small community.  Solomon’s own previous experience informs this opinion, for he dedicated his life to killing werewolves after being forced to kill his own wife for her werewolfism.

Not only does the werewolf kill again, it invades the city, causing havoc and proving itself invulnerable to the weapons of Solomon and his soldiers.  Further, in a private moment the wolf manages to get Valerie alone.  It speaks to her mentally, claiming that it wants her to join him as a shapechanger and telling her that they are the same, reminding Valerie of her childish hunting-forays.

The werewolf escapes again, but this only causes Solomon to become more draconian in his methods to ferret out the wolf’s secret identity.  In due time Valerie is accused as a witch, and the village is divided between those who easily condemn her and those who defend her.  At the climax Valerie does learn the wolf’s identity, which proves to be the culmination of a cleverly wrought mystery.

This bare summation passes over a number of fine characterizational details, as well as the film’s evocations of the Red Riding Hood story.  Often when movies reference such well-known story-motifs, they do so with a cloying cuteness.  But HOOD treats the motifs of the folktale—grandma and her house, the red cloak, walking through the mystery-haunted woods—with rare intelligence, always using them to tell Hardwicke’s story, not simply to score familiarity points.

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