Sinners and Saints
Hollywood seems to be running out of places to look for stories. There have always been the traditional sources like a novel, plays, television show and even comic books but now they have moved on to fairy tales. To be fair many of the stories we tell our children just before turning off the light are, to say the least exceptionally gruesome. Throwing children into the oven before consuming them or cutting off your toes to fit in a glass slipper are not exactly conducive with a peaceful night’s rest but generation after generation persists with the tradition, it’s probably a plot perpetrated by the association of pediatric psychiatrists to ensure continued business. In any case, the fact remains that friar tales can easily be re-worked into a screenplay suitable for a modern audience. Typically there is more than enough blood and gore, so all that is needed to meet contemporary expectations of the genre is to include a bit of sex into the mix. What is needed at this juncture is a case study and the studios have provided an ideal one; Little Red Riding Hood’. This is not only one of the best-known fairy tales it also posses quite a lineage of more mature renditions. Stephen Sondheim included an interesting take in his dark Broadway musical ‘Into the woods,’ and more recently the story received a full-on noir transformation with ‘Hoodwinked’ so with this background it was only a matter of time before a filmmaker took the tale back to its roots transforming into a full ledge horror movie. Like many classic literary themes, it is up to each generation to place their spin on the fundamental components of the story to ingrain their mark on it. The elemental archetypes required for every horror story are all present; what was needed was a bit of tweaking by the writer and rearranging by the director, and you have yourself a passable horror flick. At least it is a change from the sex-crazed, stoner kids in the woods being chased by inbred cannibal mutants. It’s not all that distanced from that stereotype, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for making it a period piece to strive for that classic gothic horror feel. I do give partial credit for an honest attempt at something off the currently well-trod path, and I did get that feeling here.
There are several tropes that no matter how much the story is altered have to be retained. The first archetype to include is the maiden, the bastion of innocence Red Riding Hood. For the story here the role is filled by Valerie (Amanda Seyfried. Next, there has to be the strong, ruggedly handsome woodsman; Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), extra points here for the ‘Peter and the wolf’ side reference. Then we need the symbol of the infirmities of age; Grandmother nicely played here by Julie Christie. Last we need the anthropomorphized wolf voiced in this flick by Archie Rice. In this incarnation, there are several other character types needed to add the medieval setting and make the story eligible for categorization as gothic horror. If I have noted a weakness inherent in this movie it’s that the filmmaker, Catherine Hardwicke, was too ambitious in how she scoped this project. I’ve been a fan of Ms. Hardwicke in her last two films, ‘Thirteen’ and Lords of Dogtown.’ Both were exceptionally sharp, focused films that were innovative with incredible visual impact. Some of that is undoubtedly due, at least in part, to the segment in her career as a production designer. She has an amazing eye for the visually interesting such as in the film ‘Tank Girl.’ Here, Hardwicke is stretching herself thin trying to extend this movie to include the requisite elements of gothic horror, suspense, mystery, and romance. Perhaps a better course would have been to streamline the story as a straightforward gothic horror treatment of a classic fairy tale. While it would require some sacrifice of a degree of the film’s texture and layering, it would have clarified a rather involved storyline. There is everything packed into this movie ranging from virgin sacrifice to lycanthropy to, in the deep left field, brazen bull torture. I realize the goal of this exercise was to take the story as far from the kiddy variation as possible, but this is, no pun intended overkill.
Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) and Woodcutter Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) are young and deeply in love. There is one major obstacle to the wedding, her parents Cesaire (Billy Burke) and Suzette (Virginia Madsen). As was common practice back in those days they have arranged a socially and fiscally expedient union for Valerie with the son of a very well off blacksmith, Henry (Max Irons). Just before the love-struck couple can run off the village is plunged into chaos; a wolf that has been victimizing the area has struck again killing Valerie’s older sister Lucie (Alexandria Maillot). The men sally off on a hunt, the blacksmith is killed, and an affair between him and Valerie’s mother produced Lucie. This is about where the train of thought derails into the soap opera abyss. A well-renowned witch hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) comes to town telling everyone they got the wrong wolf; the real one is a werewolf and not the kind that is a bad dating choice. Throw in an autistic brother tossed in an old fashion Brazen Bull and the required grandmother (Julie Christie) living in a desert cottage and you pretty much got the rest of the film.
The story initially is well-focused but as the narrative unfolds loses its edge as the extraneous side plots dilute the main plot. The acting is much better than usually found in a horror film. This town apparently has been undergoing a selective breeding program for attractiveness; Seyfried is by far the most beautiful Red Riding Hood I’ve ever encountered. She is also approaching a turning point in her career where she will have to take on some heavier dramatic roles over ‘beauty’ roles. It usually works that a few roles with a dowdy look can help establish her acting ability. She does very well here with little to go on and from ‘Big Love’ it has been demonstrated she can act. At least is a step up from ‘Jennifer’s Body’.
Posted 01/03/12 Posted 03/13/2008