Red Riding Hood

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Hey, here's something we haven't seen in a while - a new, low-budget Italian horror film. To mark the occasion, I have poured myself my favorite drink, Chianti. True, it's six dollar Chianti with a twist cap, but what do you want, I'm poor. To add insult to injury, I'm also drinking it out of a semi-clean coffee mug, because I detest doing dishes more than just about anything. And yet, all of this seems oddly appropriate for RED RIDING HOOD, a film that is tasty and refreshing, but whose approach is still a little too unseemly.

The film is narrated and told from the point of view of Rose, our Red Riding Hood. She sort of reminds one of Brooke Shields in Alfred Sole's ALICE SWEET ALICE. But this is no sweet, innocent kid out for a jaunt through the forest. Jenny's father was a prominent politician who was assassinated on live television. Her mother never was much good, and finally left Jenny to fend for herself, granting her at least some spending money and an unlimited credit card. Stuck in Rome by herself, Jenny relishes the opportunity to live on her own. She tends house herself and in a great act of maturity, uses her funds to keep things tidy and educate herself.

But Jenny is also a little off. Her best friend in the world is her dog, George. It turns out that this dog, or the "wolf" of the film, is actually a hulking masked creature who prowls the streets with Jenny at night. Jenny considers the Eternal City to be her home and safe haven and will not abide anyone dirtying the place up with their own human frailties. Hence, if she catches someone violating her strict moral code, she and George unleash bloody justice.

Two things you will figure out right away. One is that George does not actually exist. It is just an extention of Jenny's own personality. Which means that this kid in a brutal and prolific serial killer herself. Another thing is that Jenny's moral code is pretty darn strict. She lives just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Vatican but it seems like they would be far too liberal for Jenny's unforgiving crusade. She does not kill based on crimes of rape or murder, but also petty theft and adultery.

It is telling that as literate as she is, her favorite book is still Don Quixote. Cervantes' famed hero was himself someone who was heroic, yet delusional, with overly romanticized views on the world and his place in it. She actually likens Quixote to her dead father, saying "He believes what he wants to believe and sees the world differently than most people." That's all fine, but the rest of the world winds up paying for Jenny's skewed view on the world. As she says, coining the title of a spaghetti western, "God forgives, I don't."

Her idyllic existence is threatened by intruders from the outside. Her grandmother, an acclaimed stage actress, comes to stay. Saddened by her loser of a daughter, she intends to pack Jenny up and ship her back to America with her. But Jenny likes things just the way they are, and does not want to give up her life in Rome. She immediately sets to showing her power over the grandmother and when granny tries to exert authority, Jenny holds her prisoner as she goes out on her killing spree. Another threat is Jenny's tutor, who of course does not know about her nocturnal activities. Jenny has a bigtime crush on the young teacher. Because of her delusional nature and the inherent age difference, we know that any attempt at romance is doomed from the start. Jenny is setting herself up for a fall. And if serial killing and granny beating is what she does when she's in control, what is she going to do when she loses it?

A central theme of RED RIDING HOOD is that of a child who shows an independence and maturity only present in some adults. In that respect, it recalls Nicholas Gessner's THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (Hey, where's that DVD?!?). But unlike Jodie Foster's heroic figure, Jenny is a queen in her own mind. She may have some refinement but she does not possess the mature faculties of an adult. Also, having no one to shape her ethics but herself, she has turned into a nasty little murderess.

Jenny goes out at night, dressed in a black cloak and red gloves, the reverse of traditional Red Riding Hood garb. She betrays a playful nature, even when she is about to murder people. She grins impishly and her little feet kick as any anxious little girl. This before she proceeds to behead and/or impale her victims.

To be honest, it's hard to sympathize with Jenny at first. This may be a fault of the way the character is unapologetically set up. One of the writers, Ovidio G. Assonitis was the director of BEYOND THE DOOR and TENTACLES so you can't expect miracles. When Susan Satta starts out the film, she is a bit too snotty to be seen as a heroic figure. She's bossy, superior and really acts like a spoiled brat, to tell the truth. This is the film's greatest weakness, that it takes us a very long time to root for Jenny. Satta has a blast in the part and does a fine job showing what a dangerous tyke Jenny is, but in the beginning, there is no room left for the vulnerability that plays such an integral part in the film. Her mannerisms are good, but it seems a bit too dramatic at times and not easy to believe. But eventually, we do sympathize with her. Satta grows on us and before you know it, you do wind up rooting for a pint-sized serial killer and wish everyone would just leave her alone.

This is the first film from director Giacomo Cimini. Don't get overly excited as this probably won't pave the way for an Italian horror revival. This is no BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and Cimini has a ways to go before he can be compared to Argento. However, he does do a good job for a first effort. He captures the mysterious beauty of Rome. By showing everything from Jenny's perspective, we get a real idea of all the majesty and wonder that the world offers. Also, he has a knack for showing how the big bad world can hurt the little ones, no matter how much they try to insulate themselves.

Cimini has a very off-beat style. He shows a natural talent for montage, a technique many modern fillmakers use, but few are truly good at. A winning dry sense of humor is a highlight of the film. This is not all darkness and dread, but has a playful nature about it. One of the better examples of this is when Jenny tells her grandmother the story of Little Red Riding Hood.... from the wolf's perspective.

As far as horror goes, he shows an eye for the genre. One of the killings recalls the tube sequence from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. For fans of graphic violence, he does not skimp on the gore, even if this is a long way from CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. What he needs to do is get bigger for his next film. He seems to be cloistering himself in small spaces, even though he shines when he thinks big. He also needs to know when the story is over. He offers an off-beat and surreal ending, but I'm not sure it wouldn't have played better had RED RIDING HOOD ended five minutes sooner. Like the wine, it tastes okay but it's a bit too fruity, a reminder that sometimes you have to spring for something a little classier.

Still, even if it isn't the next SUSPIRIA, RED RIDING HOOD is a fun and refreshing horror film. You probably shouldn't pass it by on the video shelf. It's original, tells a compelling story, has an unlikely heroine and oh my, what big teeth it has.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis