Saturday, August 2, 2014

Oddball Film Report: LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD

NOTE: This piece was originally written for use by Ken Begg's www.jabootu.net. It has been published here with his kind permission.



LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD (1959-color)
   "The Mexicans extend their own brand of magic to the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, and the little lady will never be the same!"

   If you haven't seen a Mexican-made children's flick, you may have a better handle on your sanity than those of us who have. If you have seen one of these films and survived, you know first hand that special (if oft-nightmarish)  brand of magic they possess.
   Americans often observe the media consumed by Japanese children and we sort of shrug. There's something going on there we can't fully understand. This condition is somewhat magnified when we're exposed to the sort of fare made for children south of the border.  This stuff is SO wacky, its hard to imagine that any Mexican children ever grow up to be well-adjusted adults! Americans who hobby in oddball movies may expect to see three or four of these films over a lifetime. It sends chills up the spine to think that generations of impressionable young minds were steadily exposed to fare like this!

    Jabootu readers will recall Ken's examination of SANTA CLAUS, in which the Right Jolly Old Elf lived in a castle in outer space with hundreds of children and Merlin the magician, and travelled to earth one night a year where he delivered toys and fought the demon Pitch for the souls of all the children on earth (or at least a handful of tykes in Mexico). 
   I've previously reflected on PUSS N BOOTS, in which a midget in a stuffed cat suit sword-fights a magic ogre and his army, with the aid of a three-foot, talking chicken. And yet, these films may pale in the face of the screaming weirdness that is LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD!

   Where to begin? The opening credits are scored with music more fitting a horror film (how honest!) despite the storybook illustrations moving across the background. A couple of times we dissolve into actual footage from the movie, including a good shot of The Big Bad Wolf. 


   Right there is most of the problem, as the Wolf has to be one of the most nightmarish things I've seen in my adult life (I can't imagine how it must have come across to children seeing this on a 60 foot screen). Basically, it's a guy in a baggy wolf suit, which would be okay were it not for the actor's exposed eyes and forehead. Seeing part of a human face surrounded by a costume that's just realistic enough to have worked on its own (the mouth occasionally looks remarkably life-like), is the kind of thing that messes with your senses. It looks less like a man in a parade costume than it does something Dr. Frankenstein threw together one night after a bender.

   That's only the start of what's wrong with the character, however. Normally, I don't imprint unintended sexuality upon a film* (that swimming scene in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, for example, despite much hoopla from critics in recent years, has nothing to do with sex). Here, though, is a really uncomfortable situation as the Wolf salivates upon seeing little Red. He jabbers on about how pretty the young girl is and how tasty she must be before giving in and howling uncontrollably. His sneaking peeks of the girl and going through this routine has a VERY creepy vibe to it. One I'm sure the film makers never intended, let me be clear. The way the wolf pants upon seeing Red, though, would be a lot less disturbing were she not a child. It's like someone accidentally hired the Tex Avery Wolf to do a Disney cartoon. 


[* I note a similar uncomfortable reflection arose in my review of SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY, or more specifically the THUMBELLINA  featurette within it, in which every animal in the forest seemed determined to force Thumb into marrying them. That was uncomfortable enough, but this film is downright disturbing at times....]
 

   As if that weren't bad enough, the Wolf has a sidekick: Stinky the Skunk. Stinky is slightly less terrifying because this actor's face is more or less completely covered by the skunk mask, and the exposed flesh around his eyes are painted to match the colors of the costume. 

   Stinky is a short fella, roughly as tall as our Shirley Temple-ish heroine, and I'm pretty sure is played by the same guy who played Puss N Boots (some of his movements indicate this, and I'll admit the guy is very talented, and limber). Stinky should be a cute counterpoint to the Wolf (who is the only creature who will -barely- tolerate Stinky's odor, thus their partnership), but any chance of that is lost when he speaks. He has a stuttering high-pitched voice like Chip and Dale (actually, he sounds exactly like some cartoon character that I can't recall -I'm thinking a bug or something from an old Disney one-reeler that's no longer allowed on television). That isn't so bad, but he keeps breaking into fits of laughter that quickly become more creepy and unsettling than charming or funny.

   He also falls in love with a parrot owned by Little Red Riding Hood and will serenade the bird (something slightly less freaky than seeing Puss N Boots stroke a tabby and proclaim his undying love).

   Red herself, meanwhile, isn't immune from the freaky-factor. While the little girl playing the part is cute and aggressively cheerful, she occasionally breaks into song and her singing voice is that of an adult woman! This too, can actually throw the viewer off balance. 


   Another mystery is where this film is taking place. The town is celebrating Mardi Gras and the local preacher wears the uniform of a Mexican priest from about 100 years earlier, yet everybody else wears costumes that more suggest Germany of the same era! And like in SANTA CLAUS, there are weird, out-of-left-field references to God that seem to run counter to the stuff we're seeing on screen.

   As we open, Red is having an argument with local trouble-maker Freckles (a poor little boy who probably HAD to become the town bully lest he get beat up for his name alone) as to if a local legendary fairy is real or not. 


   There's this rock on a hill that vaguely -very vaguely- looks like an angel when the sun back-lights it. Red insists the fairy is real, but this won't play much of a part in the following story. 

   Red makes for home, and runs across the singing band of woodsmen who live in the village. As the men drop the little girl off outside her home, they all gush over how pretty the girl is. I guess she's going to grow up to be the town's most beauteous babe, because these guys keep going on about how she's the prettiest gal in the world and I'm guessing they're setting the grounds for courtship when she finally blossoms into womanhood. Or else everybody thinks there aren't enough tots in the town with a swelled head.

   Inside, Mother has just finished making the titular cape and hood. Upon being seen in these garments for the first time, everyone proclaims her new official name to be Little Red Riding Hood. This is practically made a public policy as the town Mayor (whose long white beard doesn't match his curly blond hair!) and every other adult in town continues to gush about how pretty the child is during the Mardi Gras celebration. 


   (The film introduces a young couple "Peter and his Girlfriend" who don't really do anything once they're established. Peter's Girlfriend is a hot babe who's the daughter of the local Priest, and that's about all we ever bother to learn about them. Oh, we also learn they're good dancers because they win the dance contest, but then we're done with them!)

   The Wolf and Stinky sneak around the Mardi Gras and spy out Little Red, but get distracted by the wrestling exhibition. The Wolf, you see, fancies himself better at everything than anyone else is. Upon creeping close enough to see the dance contest, he is horrified to see the humans are doing the Polka! Rather than being aghast at this weird relocation of a European dance to turn-of-the-century Mexico, the Wolf insists he's the best Polka dancer in the world and demonstrates that he, in fact, is terrible. 


   Seeing the fights, Wolf grabs Stinky and demonstrates multiple holds on the hapless creature. Wolf is also a master of disguise (and everyone in town is either blind or stupid for this to work), trying to trick his way into Red's house by posing as a saleswoman selling fine fabric and thread. 

    Mother doesn't want any, but she never seems to be horrified of the monstrous creature she earlier warned Red to avoid. She doesn't let on, but I'd assume Mother was also a bit disturbed about this "woman" coming to her door and then drooling over her young daughter as the child lay in bed. "She looks good enough to eat" is said a couple of times.

   Stinky collects information on Red, giving him a chance to see the parrot and fall madly in love. (Actually, and I'll grant that I can't understand everything Stinky says, I think he mentions the parrot as being male! So, Stinky is a girl? Or is this even weirder than I gave it credit for? I think one of the things Stinky says is "I'll love him like a brother" but I can't be sure because of that voice! I am pretty sure Wolf refers to Stinky as being a male....) He'll come back later and serenade the bird with a mandolin! 



   (Actually, and as weird as these films are, it's hard to trust your own recall, I think in the sequel(!) film, Stinky spells out his attraction to the bird as being romantic as opposed to platonic. At no time is there any indication Stinky is a female, however! In fact, I'm certain Stinky is called "he" in the films....)

   At any rate, Freckles runs into the woods and runs afoul of the Wolf. An intense search reveals no sign of the child. 


   The Wolf tries to break into Red's house while Mother is out, but the hunters get back to town in time to see the Wolf at the door and promptly shoot him in his hairy duff. They track the Wolf over the next few days and eventually near his domain. There, they find some bones and assume the Wolf has been finished off by the buzzards. Wolf watches from his lair.*

   (*Here is another element that doesn't seem remotely familiar to my American memories of the tale. Wolf and Stinky live in the trunk of a sinister-looking tree that vaguely resembles a howling wolf. This is right next to a cave known to the townsfolk as "The Devil's Abode" which comes complete with a prophecy stating the evil of the place will only be expelled when confronted by a person who has been cleansed of all evil! I don't recall a curse in the version I heard, do you?)



   (This cave, by the way, seems to be Mexico's Bronson Canyon, as it turns up in any Mexican movie that needs a cave. I'm pretty sure this is the same cave where Puss fought the Ogre, and I know for sure it was the landing site for two space women looking for male specimens in SHIP OF MONSTERS, a film which sadly never saw US release. I also think Santo fought Dracula around this same spot!)

   The last quarter of the film concerns the familiar story of Red taking a visit to Granny's house, with the Wolf plotting to eat Red by posing as the old lady. Before we can get that far, though, Red gets sidetracked and looks for Freckles in the Devil's Abode....


   Said cave is suitably nightmarish with dark walls, but even here they don't leave well enough alone. Red comes across a giant spider (!) and starts to interview it! Looking the eight-foot arachnid in the face, Red promptly asks "You're a spider, aren't you?" Red then acts confused when the monster refuses to speak (I'll allow this, given that she'd earlier talked to Stinky, and she had noted how friendly all the other animals of the woods are.) Rounding a corner, Red continues this routine with a crocodile!

   Finally, Red wanders into a large cavern where she spots a huge black rock. Seeing something I don't, Red starts screaming at Satan, telling him he'll have to answer to God. The Evil One gets the hint and scrams in a puff of smoke. Outside, the tree explodes (!) and no longer resembles a monster wolf! 


   The spell over the place lifted, Red finds Freckles and sends him home. Also in evidence are several lambs earlier abducted by the Wolf. Maybe the Wolf wouldn't be complaining about his hunger as much if he had actually bothered to eat some of his catches!!!! 

   Meanwhile, I can't help but note that Red was not a person cleansed of all evil. As a child, she would still possess innocence, and thus not need cleansing as I understand things. Either way, we never see any form of cleansing to nominate Red as the one to fulfil this prophecy. It's just another example of weirdness on display.

   From here, we get the traditional story, with the Wolf about to eat Red at Granny's house when the woodsmen arrive and string up the Wolf in the town square. Preparing to burn him with green wood the townsfolk refuse to hear the Wolf's cries of repentance. Stinky even runs in, ready to throw the first torch! 


   Red, however, forgives the Wolf, and the townsfolk follow her lead. In fact, they appoint the Wolf sentry to keep other animals out of the town limits!! Red makes a gift of her parrot to Stinky before its over!

   As if all this weren't enough, the film sired TWO sequels! LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD AND HER PALS, and LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD AND TOM THUMB VS THE MONSTERS were pushed out in short order! (For what it's worth, those two entries are a bit better. Maybe it's being settled into the insanity, but I found the sequels much more enjoyable upon their first viewings.)  


   In LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD AND HER PALS, Wolf and Stinky find themselves victims of a plot to discredit them with the villagers (with whom they have largely forged a good relationship). Tossed out of town and out of uniform, the pair have a huge fight and go their separate ways. Meanwhile, a band of gypsy wagons has pitched camp outside Red's house. When the vagabonds abduct Red before leaving town, it's up to Wolf and Stinky to rescue her.

   Finally, LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD AND TOM THUMB VS THE MONSTERS finds the reformed Wolf and Stinky tossed out of the league of monsters. Wolf and the Ogre, tamed by Tom Thumb in his own movie, are sentenced to die for their lack of crimes! As Wolf and Ogre work to escape, Stinky heads off on his own and finds Red and Tom, rushing them along to find help. During all this, the wicked Queen of the monsters (an exact, if three dimensional, recreation of the Wicked Queen in Disney's SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS) tries to stop the forces of good by turning everyone in Red's village into animals! Our heroes must fight their way into the Queen's castle, which is brimming with monsters, many seen in other Mexican movies. Fortunately, goodness prevails in the end.  

   Again, I find it hard to imagine a childhood filled with such fare. Political corruption and economic decay can't be all that makes people become desperate enough to flee into another country, the laws of said country be hanged. I think they're trying to find less scarring entertainment for their children. Just goes to show, there's a lot more that separates countries than just border and language! 

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