Shauna Kain, left, as Roxanne and Amanda Seyfried as Valerie in "Red… (Kimberly French / Warner…)
The horror-tinged romance of "Red Riding Hood" is at its heart nothing more than a fashionable fairytale version of what's all the rage in teen love stories these days. The basic formula includes a moody beauty falling for the wrong boy, who may actually be a vampire-alien-werewolf-whatever. Can "Pinocchio at 15" be far behind?
With "my, what big eyes you have" Amanda Seyfried as the girl in the scarlet cloak and that edgy shaman of young angst, Catherine Hardwicke, in the director's chair, the movie comes with great expectations. So it kills me to say — or at least it bothers me a lot — that what we have here is a sheep in wolf's clothing.
Gorgeously shot, smartly conceived, cleverly cast, badly executed — the lush medieval beauty here is at best only skin deep. If this were a four-letter-word newspaper, you would see a string of them now.
In Hardwicke we have a director who understands and is able to channel onscreen the impossible ache of the adolescent girl with a rare authenticity. Probably best realized in 2003's "Thirteen," and at the core of 2008's "Twilight," the opening gambit in the current phenom, it surfaces here in fits and starts.
With an exceptional eye for the seductive power of an image, cinematographer Mandy Walker ("Australia") sets up the mystery from above. It's as if we are riding on the back of a hawk as it drifts silently above snow-covered mountains, then a charming thatched roof village comes into view surrounded by a forest so dense that a woodcutter could chop wood forever.
Once on the ground, production designer Tom Sanders ("Saving Private Ryan") and costume designer Cindy Evans, who worked with Hardwicke on "Thirteen," have created a landscape and a look so ripe with possibility that you can't wait for someone to take a bite.
Within this forest dark and deep, the two ax men to watch for are Cesaire (Billy Burke) as a drunk of a father to Seyfried's Valerie and the young hunk Peter, played by Shiloh Fernandez ("Skateland"), whose eyes fairly crackle with mischief and menace.
Though Valerie is smitten with Peter, he's poor, so V's mom has someone else in mind. A marriage to the village's Richie Rich is arranged — that would be Henry (the scion of Jeremy Irons, Max). Soon Miss Bright Eyes is being torn between the two, and there's a bad moon rising. For this is a town in the stranglehold of a werewolf, and this particular season of the wolf is the one in which his bite comes with transformative power for some, death for others, starting with Valerie's sister.
David Leslie Johnson's screenplay finds its ominous undertones in the earliest versions of the Red Riding Hood story — before the beast in Grandma's bonnet was defanged for modern children's delicate sensitivities. The "evil dwells among us" premise is a fine one that has fueled many a thriller in countless imaginative ways (think "Silence of the Lambs"). It's the dialogue that is problematic.
Sometimes, it's literate and lofty, as when the fire-and-brimstone Father Solomon (Gary Oldman in purple velvet) comes to rid the town of its wolf problem and remind us of how creative implements of torture can be. More of the time, it's mind-numbingly simplistic and served up on a platter like leftovers.
That, as much as the wolf, is one of the great tragedies of this tale. The possibilities were there for the taking with the brilliant Julie Christie, continuing a resurgence that began with 2006's "Away From Her," playing the grandmother as a bohemian herbalist living deep in the woods. "Sideways'" lovely Virginia Madsen is Valerie's eyes-on-the-prize driven mother. And Seyfried ("Mama Mia," "Letters to Juliet") has more promise in her pout than a gaggle of her contemporaries combined.
You have to wonder if Hardwicke cast Burke as an inside dig at "Twilight," where she chose him to play dad to Kristen Stewart's Bella, or maybe he's just the teen father of choice these days.
There is also a problem on the terror front. After Father Solomon throws suspicion on everyone, what should have been skin-prickling, rising-fear time — for the actors and for us — gets silly instead, with everyone's eyes getting their close-up. Oh, my.
Then there's the matter of the wolf, with visual effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun in charge of making those hackles rise and those teeth dagger sharp. It works, at least until the wolf starts talking, killing off the fear factor faster than the villagers.
I'm not sure which is the greater tragedy here: That all of "Red Riding Hood's" promise was squandered? Or that it was clearly designed with a sequel in mind? Growl.