I saw Red Riding Hood today. It was nothing like I expected because the trailers safely hid the witch hunt (for lack of better phrase) aspect of discovering the werewolf's true identity. The trailers also hid what the final edit nearly erased: the sexual awakening that happens when a teenage girl stars in a werewolf story. Do I even need to go into the much discussed meaning of "Little Red Riding Hood?" You know, how girls grow up and have to protect themselves from the dangers that come with womanhood? It's a well that horror writers have visited to great effect for years, though the potential is not nearly dried out. While there are well known films that deal with this concept, there are countless others content to have werewolves be this dark other, a vehicle through which to tear bodies limb from limb to the delight of gore fans. Tortured werewolves are just as common, with a poor family man becoming cruelly cursed to destroy the countryside at every full moon. Neither style digs through the mythological framework quite like the ones that star a teenage girl discovering her identity.
Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is not a werewolf film, but it does set up the standards of this tiny sub-genre (the same way What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? established the framework for pscho-biddy films without really being a psycho-biddy film). The title character, Lemora, is a young teenage girl leaving home for the first time in pursuit of an authority figure (her criminal father who disappeared). She winds up exploring a strange and mysterious locale (a secluded mansion) where she is simultaneously discouraged (by an older local) and encouraged (by a younger, more appealing local) to go further than she ever imagined. Through coercion, lies, and a catchy warning poem, she discovers her identity as a woman through the horror of a creature that can only come out at night. Frankly, if the woman in the mansion was a werewolf rather than a vampire, the film would not lose any of its potency or meaning. The focus of this sub-genre is the young girl's maturation, not the identity of the beast.
Though I don't claim to be an expert in werewolf films (my interest has always been variations on the standard werewolf to the point of missing a few key werewolf films), I do think I've seen a fair share of this type. One of my favorites is The Company of Wolves. This dark British fairy tale is based on a short story collection by author Angela Carter. Essentially, a depressed teenage girl escapes into her dream world, where a grandmother figure tells her a variety of werewolf stories designed to teach her life lessons. The teenage girl, Rosaleen, explores the woods outside the village, bumping into an attractive gentleman with eyebrows that meet. Never trust a gentleman with eyebrows that meet. Grandmother warns the girl again and again to take care of herself as the wolves will want her soon. Why? Because she's becoming a woman and men will try to take advantage of her. Rosaleen grows into a much more mature figure by the end of the film because she is able to navigate around the perils of werewolves within and beyond the village.
Then there's the werewolf that truly broke the mold. It was not based on fairy tales or dependent upon a male lead to guide the story. The film is Ginger Snaps and it is one of the most progressive, intelligent, and well-crafted horror films ever made. Ginger and Brigitte are teenage sisters who, at the late of fifteen and sixteen, have not had their periods yet. They have isolated themselves from their high school, relying only on each other for the tiny moments of joy they find in life. One night, Ginger is attacked by a wolf; it just happens to be the first night she ever has her period. Brigitte and Ginger hide the evidence and watch in silent horror as Ginger changes. She sprouts hair in strange new places, pursues boys, and gains a foothold in the social structure of the school. She also grows a tail, pointy ears, and a taste for blood, but it doesn't matter to her anymore: her transformation into a werewolf turns her into a popular student. In reality, the attraction is caused by her sexual maturation, as if the boys in the school can smell her down just like the werewolf that attacked her. It's heartbreaking to watch Brigitte fight for to save Ginger when Ginger convinces herself that the symptoms of lycanthropy are better than the tired, child-like identity she had before.
The sequel, focusing on Brigitte, is even more possessed with the sexual awakening theme. Brigitte winds up in a drug rehabilitation program when she is found with hypodermic needles filled with a mysterious substance. Brigitte is forced to use her gender as a weapon when her wit and physical strength fail to make an impression on the male orderlies. Where Ginger was willing to embrace her sexual awakening, Brigitte tries to hide it, which results in violent fantasies about masturbation and murder. She fights against her changing body as much as she can, though even she admits that the lycanthropic tendencies can only be calmed, not eradicated. This is the same way she cannot go back to being the innocent child she was before her body began to mature no matter how much she wishes she could cure that, too.
Red Riding Hood, at its most arresting scene, is all about sexual awakening. The villagers decide to celebrate the slaughter of a wolf they believe to be their long-term enemy. The young women of the village come out in full force, loosening their bodices, hiking up their skirts, and performing a sexually-charged folk dance with any partner who comes by. Girls dance with girls the same way they dance with boy. The boys can't even take the lead because girls feel they are finally free of the terror of the wolf. The oppressive wolf has prevented them from exploring the woods, leaving their homes at night, and having any joy not pre-arranged by their parents. Now, in the light of the blood moon, the young girls can finally present themselves as available young women. True feelings come out, hearts are broken, and young girls are changed forever. It is reminiscent of the officer's first night on Sumerisle in the original version of The Wicker Man. Everyone is driven wild by sexual desire and no one is powerful enough to resist their primal urges.
Unfortunately, unlike these other great werewolf/identity films, Red Riding Hood has been edited to be a slightly edgier Twilight crossed with a mystery film. The lead character doesn't grow or change, though she comes close in the party sequence where she, more than any other girl, is experimenting with her true feelings. The pieces of a great lycanthropy as metaphor for sexual maturation story are there; they're just left lying on the cutting room floor, only truly bubbling out in the wonderful party scene.
There are other examples, as well. We've actually reached a point in the horror genre, for example, where the script is being twisted in new forms. Notably, in Trick'r Treat, a young college girl dressed as Red Riding Hood is pursued by a costumed Big Bad Wolf on the night where she is expected to hunt her own prey. Sick Girl also subverts the formula, having two adult women discover their true sexual identities through an unfortunate transformation brought on by the bite of a rare insect. The push of sexual exploration in In My Skin comes from a nasty cut that might as well be a werewolf's bite for how it infects the lead character, almost cursing her to carve out her next thrill.
While I understand why it is the female character that receives the most play in this sub-genre, it would be interesting to see a teenage boy thrown into the same situation. The closest I can think of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, where a teenage boy unleashes his innermost fantasies upon male victims through the guiding hand of Kreuger's claws. Some werewolf films have hinted at sexual hijinks, but for humor, not serious intent. It will be interesting to see how, and if, filmmakers are willing to not only explore the lycanthropy as sexual maturation metaphor, but expand upon it as well in the future.