The Brothers Grimm and the like laid the groundwork for modern storytelling. From damsels in distress to wicked parental figures who sacrificed their own young, these antique fables have shaped today’s narratives in countless ways. Although their undiluted forms can be entirely too gruesome for younger listeners, these often morbid yarns of yesteryear are viable when communicating adult-oriented fear.
French artist turned director Vincent Paronnaud certainly puts “Little Red Riding Hood” to proper use with his thriller Hunted. He thoroughly references the archetypal story in spite of using a modern setting. It just goes to show that no matter the age or place, fairy tales have a timeless and universal quality to them.
“…a harrowing account of survival […] rooted in Grindhouse horror despite its idyllic scenery and quixotic execution.”
In this Belgium-shot feature based on the director’s short Cosmogony, a wary woman is preyed on by two dangerous men. It all begins with Eve (Lucie Debay) meeting an alluring, nameless stranger (Arieh Worthalter) at the bar. She’s drawn to him after he “saves” her from another man who had been making unwanted advances all night. Yet Eve‘s instinct to run is triggered when she’s suddenly ambushed by her date’s accomplice (Ciaran O’Brien). She tries her hardest to escape her pursuers, but they all end up in the woods after a car accident.
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The visual and plot references to “Little Red Riding Hood” are unmistakable. The opening sees a random woman recounting a legend that hugely parallels Eve‘s ordeal; her ominous offering asserts that while there are no wolves anymore, men still exist. Eve, dawning a striking red coat, may not be on her way to Grandmother’s house, but she does get lost in a nearby labyrinthine forest that would be beautiful under different circumstances. The comparisons don’t remotely end there, either. Worthalter’s character, who embodies the ferocious appetite of the Big Bad Wolf, stalks his victim like a sexually depraved beast. In a clever twist, he perilously enmeshes two other side characters who fill the roles of Grandma and the Huntsman.
It’s easy to get lost in Paronnaud’s English-language debut; cinematographer Joachim Philippe paints a picturesque backcloth for the ugly events that transpire. Infrequently seen wildlife and the landscape’s natural beauty have a calming effect on nervous viewers. There is a dreaminess that contextualizes the themes by eye. The Persepolis director’s interest in surrealism is invaluable when he highlights the story’s most percussive beats.
Like the paragon of violent retribution that is Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, Hunted has its heroine turning the tables on multiple would-be rapists. Eve, initially a reserved woman whose daily grind includes fending off a pompous male boss, is then flung into a frightening and identifiable situation. Paronnaud’s film, however, is sometimes abated by its more absurd moments. The bumbling villains are proxies for the patriarchy, but on their own, they never acutely come across as scary. There is a cartoonish sensibility to them that has more to do with the movie’s fantastical inspirations than what they actually symbolize.
As much as Hunted is videoed like an unending and eventful dream, it still registers as a harrowing account of survival. The movie is rooted in Grindhouse horror despite its idyllic scenery and quixotic execution. The Big Bad Wolf has a sweeping sense of sadism laced with frank perversion that isn’t only targeted at the protagonist. One moment he suggestively inserts his finger into his degenerate partner’s open wound, the next he tries to groom another young man by teasing him with pornographic gifts. A considerable amount of the violence here also borders on loony.
Hunted is a haywire genre ride that is marred by a conflicted sense of identity. It is thronged with thematical ideas that regularly appear oversimplified; the woodsy, remote setting devolves men and women into complete caricatures. The whimsical imagery is not quite persuasive enough to offset some of the more outlandish developments, though. The story at its most basic is frightful, and its potency rests in the beginning of the film. Where it steers off course is in the remaining two acts whose zaniness will assuredly divide viewers.
“The story at its most basic is frightful, and its potency rests in the beginning of the film. Where it steers off course is in the remaining two acts whose zaniness will assuredly divide viewers.”
Hunted had its world premiere at 2020 Fantasia Fest. You can look forward to seeing it on Shudder in the near future. Read all of our coverage of the festival here, and join the conversation with the Nightmare on Film Street community over on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!