Red Hoods, Dark Woods Part II: Once Upon A Time…

Throughout the years many filmmakers have adapted various versions of Little Red Riding Hood for cinema, most to investigate or exploit its coming of age subtext. In the early Eighties Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan collaborated with English writer and novelist Angela Carter on an adaptation of her book 'The Bloody Chamber.' 'The Bloody Chamber' is a collection of fairytales, including Little Red Riding Hood, which Carter had reworked, reinterpreted and filtered through a 20th Century feminist viewpoint to give them a fresh and provocative perspective. Their resulting collaboration was 1984’s strikingly beautiful and dreamlike The Company of Wolves, a film that unfurls as the fever-dream of a young woman experiencing menstruation for the first time. Boasting a narrative of stories within stories and dreams within dreams, The Company of Wolves retains its power even now, and in terms of stylisation and mood, even manages to ‘out-Burton’ Tim Burton, with its rich and intoxicating atmospherics. Angela Lansbury starred as the Grandmother who warns her young granddaughter Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) to be wary of men who are ‘hairy on the inside’ and whose eyebrows meet in the middle. The tales they tell each other form the bulk of the movie, unspooling as striking vignettes ruminating on the nightmarish aspects of (female) adolescence and the myriad tribulations faced by young women as they enter adulthood. 

Matthew Bright’s indie film Freeway updated and reinterpreted the story in 1996, with Red Riding Hood (Reese Witherspoon) portrayed as a trailer park juvenile delinquent on her way to stay with her grandmother after her addict mother and abusive step-father are hauled off to prison. Naturally, she has a run in with the ‘big bad wolf’ – Kiefer Sutherland as a mentally deranged serial killer targeting young women on the titular freeway. Unfolding as a wickedly off-kilter road movie, Freeway also provides damning social commentary on the US’s justice system and how it mistreats the young people caught up in it.

Still from 'Trick 'r Treat'
Giacomo Cimini’s 2003 film Red Riding Hood, re-imagined the tale as the misadventures of a young girl acting as a vigilante, delivering violent justice to thieves, rapists, murderers and thugs with the aid of her imaginary, wolf mask wearing friend, George.

Also made in 2003, Little Erin Merryweather updates the tale to feature Red Riding Hood as a serial killer with severe psychological hang-ups originating from abuse she suffered as a child: the 'big bad wolf' in her past being her abusive father. She works as a fairytale-obsessed librarian on a college campus and preys on male students; stalking them through nearby woods, stabbing them to death and sowing stones up inside their bellies. The film, directed by and starring David Morwick boasted the tag line 'A flash of red... Then you're dead', and craftily subverted the norm by playing around with gender conventions resulting in a film about a group of young men who are stalked by a female killer.

The Ellen Page starring Hard Candy reinvented the story for the i-generation, with a self-appointed vigilante ‘red riding hood’ figure tracking down sex offenders and child abusers through online chat-rooms and extracting brutal justice. The Syfy commissioned series, Red: Werewolf Hunter also put a slyly subversive spin on the tale. The series follows the exploits of the modern-day descendant of Red Riding Hood, who brings her fiancé home to meet her family and reveal to him their occupation as werewolf hunters. Trouble ensues however after he is bitten by a werewolf and the pair must go on the run, with Red having to protect him from her werewolf-slaying family. Ultra low budget slasher Rotkäppchen: The Blood of Red Riding Hood mixed erotic stylisation with gory violence in its retelling of the tale as directed by Harry Sparks in 2009.

Still from 'Brothers Grimm'

Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood - written by David Leslie Johnson (who also wrote the creepy and disturbing The Orphan) - is loosely based on the original literary fairy tale “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” (Little Red Riding Hood), as adapted from earlier folk stories by Charles Perrault, and elements from the version by the Brothers Grimm, “Rotkäppchen” (Redcap). With its supernaturally charged story boasting werewolves and angst-ridden teens embroiled in a quivering love triangle, Red Riding Hood has already drawn comparisons with Hardwicke’s adaptation of teen-vampire romance, Twilight. It would be easy to dismiss Hardwicke as a peddler of pallid, gothic-hewn romances for lovelorn, awkward 'tweens'; easy, were it not for the fact that she also co-wrote and directed the hard-hitting and wayward drama Thirteen.

Hardwicke has a penchant for stories that revolve around marginalised young people, particularly young women, who undergo tumultuous strife and heartache in order to find their own identities and voices. The character of Red Riding Hood after all, depending on what variation of the tale you look at, was resourceful, independent, head-strong and resilient. The perfect heroine for a modernised gothic horror flick. In some versions it is she who saves herself and her grandmother from the big bad wolf, not a woodsman. Each version acts as a thinly veiled metaphor relaying the pain and potential dangers young women face as they mature into adulthood.

It is fair to say that the figure of a red-hooded girl picking her way cautiously through deep dark woods while being silently stalked by a ravenous wolf, still haunts popular culture today and drips with sexual undertones. It is one of the most effective expressions of the ultimate loss of innocence. From Roald Dahl’s ‘Revolting Rhymes’ through countless music videos by the likes of Evanescence and Cathy Davey, to explicit references in horror movies such as Trick 'r Treat and The Brother’s Grimm, to darker, more erotic takes on pre-Perrault versions of the tale, such as Neil Gaiman’s reinterpretation in ‘The Sandman’; the girl with the red riding hood actually cuts a pretty impressive swathe through pop culture and media.


thekelvingreen said…
I wasn't expecting Freeway to be any good at all, but I found it quite good.
Aaron said…
Great write-up, James. Not sure how many of these you plan on doing, so apologies if the following titles were on your radar. Way way back in the day on my first blog I did a dark fairy tale theme and came across some interesting films, some of which you haven't brought up yet. Among them are:

Deep in the Woods - A Euro-slasher about a group of actors who put on a private show of Red Riding Hood for a wealthy man's deranged son, only to find themselves stalked by a killer in a big bad wolf costume.

Black XXXMas - A short film that no words can do justice.

A Wicked Tale - Another short-ish film. Don't remember much about it other than it being really dark and violent. Worth seeking out if you haven't seen it yet.

As far as recent stuff, the show Supernatural did a fairy tale themed episode with references to Red Rising Hood and an interesting take on Sleeping Beauty in particular.
systemshocks said…
Fascinating, James. I haven't seen many of these films but it is intriguing how the fairy tale 'bleeds' into non-horror films like Freeway. I was thinking of a film called Smooth Talk (1984) where Laura Dern is menaced by a predatory Treat Williams. Have you seen that one?

James, I would be very interested in reading your articles on Pete Walker and Teeth, but Paracinema has sold out of these issues. Are these articles available elsewhere? :)
James Gracey said…
@ Kelvin - I love Freeway! Ever since watching it at uni, it’s been a firm favourite of mine. What's not to love about a film that retells a fairytale through the aesthetics of an indie trailer-trash flick?!! ;)

@Aaron – Cheers for those titles, buddy! I’m a little ashamed to admit I’ve never even heard of Deep in the Woods – though I do love the sound of it.
I watched a really strange French film a few years back called Innocence – what you said about the group of actors putting on a private play reminded me of it. It’s set in a boarding school for girls and some of the younger pupils are drawn to a mysterious abandoned theatre in the woods near their school. It was all very languid and atmospheric, and I don’t really remember much of what happened except the girls’ amateur plays in the eerie theatre. Not strictly a horror film, but quite dark and fairytale-esque.
I recall reading an article about Black XXXMas a few years back in Shivers magazine; alas it has remained beneath my radar since then. I’ll check it out on YouTube – thank you so much for the link!

@Jon – No, I haven’t seen Smooth Talk! I do love Laura Dern though, and I remember reading an interview with David Lynch in which he mentioned Dern in Smooth Talk. Must check it out.
I’ll see if I can maybe email those articles to you. Thanks again for swinging by!
WriterME said…
Just in time for my class next Tuesday on adaptations of Red Riding Hood. Coincidence? I think not ;)
James Gracey said…
Oooh, spooky stuff! Hope the class goes well!! :)
Anonymous said…
Haven´been here for a long time- and what a treat!
Let me take this as an recommendation for Bettelheim´s book.With films as an obvious equivalent to fairy tales I guess the writer and most visitors of this and similiar places did benefit from an excellent and useful education...
Most of the films mentioned here(but not Carters+Jordans work)are unknown to me- great!
One more for the list:
Night of the hunter:Red Riding Hood/Ruby lost her way in the forest, met the wolf and showed him the way to grandmother´s house- who finally shot him down and trapped him in the barn- long before most revisionist/female empowerment/postmodern takes on the story.
Its been a pleasure to look at these beautiful and carefully chosen illustrations.
James Gracey said…
Thanks for stopping by and commenting Maren. Glad you enjoyed the posts. Yes, Night of the Hunter has so many allusions to fairytales, especially Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. Beautiful film. :)

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