The legacy of Twilight is impossible to miss in Red Riding Hood, a movie that only exists because its director Catherine Hardwicke shepherded the first installment of the massive vampire franchise to nearly $400 million worldwide. After being unceremoniously shoved off the series she moved on to another moody story of teen romance and angst, adapting the fairy tale Red Riding Hood to be fraught with sexual innuendo and symbolism, plus yet another story of an affair between a girl and a supernatural creature. Both better made than Twilight and far less entertaining, Red Riding Hood could easily lure the same crowd, but doesn't offer much to anyone not entering the theater ready to swoon.
A sharp and somber visual style is by far the film's strongest asset, making hay of that iconic red cape and believably building a medieval-ish straw-and-wood village haunted every full moon by a vicious werewolf. Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) grew up there, smitten since childhood with the woodcutter (Shiloh Fernandez, as handsome as Taylor Lautner and about as expressive) but now betrothed to the blacksmith (Max Irons) at the behest of her parents (Virginia Madsen and Billy Burke). After 20 years of peace with the werewolf Valerie's sister is slain, a hunting party of men comes back only with the head of an ordinary wolf, and professional enemy of the occult Solomon (Gary Oldman) is brought to town to set things right.
Solomon reveals that the werewolf is in fact an enemy from within, and the hunt for the villager with beastly tendencies begins. When Valerie comes face to face with the wolf during one rampage she realizes she can communicate with it, which both raises her suspicious about who it could be-- her true love? her fiance? maybe her creepy grandmother (Julie Christie)?-- and gets her pegged by her neighbors as a witch. This could make an interesting place to speak out against witch hunts (a la The Crucible) or even the stultifying effects of small town life, but instead it leads into a third-act declaration of love and one brief fight scene, along with many more misty shots of the snowy woods.
David Johnson's script somehow wrings no tension or dramatic stakes out of the many life-or-death situations, and Hardwicke offers so much misdirection about who the werewolf might be that it's impossible to play along with the mystery. Seyfried, with her enormous eyes and fairy-tale pale skin, is as magnetic a lead as ever, but she's hampered with both dour expository dialogue and a supporting cast constantly running into itself. The movie that features Gary Oldman bellowing on horseback bears no resemblance to the one in which Seyfried and other teenage villagers swap girlish secrets, and none of those quite fit what Red Riding Hood turns out to be. Hardwicke has an iron grip on one tone-- moody romance tinged with danger-- and any scene or character that doesn't fall in line feels horrendously out of place.
The problem with even a successfully executed mood of romance and danger is that it wears you down after a while; absent anything but the briefest moment of humor and only muddled action, Red Riding Hood becomes suffocating well before the dialogue crosses the line over into laughable. Hardwicke builds this impeccable, gloomy world but has no idea where to take us once she gets us there, and unfortunately the cast seems as lost as we do.