Movie Review: Big bad romance fails to incite fairy tale nostalgia

Red Riding Hood (2011) | ★★★☆☆

Red Riding Hood, Catherine Hardwicke's first major directorial escapade since Twilight, is a thrilling game of whodunit, but the romance reeks of stale tween-mongering.

The latest version of the classic Grimm fairytale follows the inhabitants of a small mountain town as they try to identify the werewolf in their midst – before it kills again.

Valerie, the film's sexed-up version of Little Red, finds herself torn between her childhood friend, Peter, and her fiancé, the town's puppy-eyed blacksmith, Henry.

As if that isn't enough for a girl to deal with, the werewolf terrorizing the town takes a special interest in Valerie. This brings her under the suspicion of the fanatical Father Solomon.

Amanda Seyfried is a pretty placeholder as Valerie, but not much else. Shiloh Fernandez tries for a perpetual sneer as Peter but looks instead like someone off-screen is holding manure under his nose.

Even though Max Irons holds his own as nice-guy Henry, the romance that is supposed to carry the movie fizzles in the absence of any kind of character development.

It doesn't help that Hardwicke seems to have taught the actors to equivocate brooding with sexual tension. Seyfried displays facial expressions straight out of the Kristen Stewart School of Acting, and Fernandez's eternal grimace screams of Robert Pattinson.

Hardwicke's influences aren't all detrimental, though. As audiences saw in Twilight, the director has a distinct eye for scenery, and her landscape shots are absolutely breathtaking.

One of the film's highlights is a sizzling pagan dance scene set to the eerie electronic stylings of Fever Ray. The camera soars in and out of the bonfire-lit costume extravaganza, providing some welcome cinematic eye candy. Another skillful shot places the audience behind a metal mask, inducing a sense of claustrophobia and mounting anxiety.

The most enjoyable part of the movie is the mystery it presents: Who is the wolf, and what does he or she want from Valerie? The film hurls out so many red herrings that the audience is left scrambling to find motives and indicators of guilt for each character that appears on screen, even the most minor ones.

The fake-outs continue until seconds before the big reveal, and by that point, your mind is running in so many directions that the identity of the real culprit is a delightful surprise. Even if the film fails as a romance, the suspense is well paced and the twist highly satisfying.

Red Riding Hood's visual splendor and killer soundtrack attest to Hardwicke's directorial potential, but Red Riding Hood feels too much like one more in a series of patronizing attempts to pander to the cash cow tween demographic. It's palatable, but audiences are getting sick of the taste.