“Cinematic Fairy Tales”
By MICHAEL TULLY, Hammer to Nail
Published: June 16, 2009
Before becoming a feature film director with Year of the Fish, David Kaplan made a name for himself in the mid-1990s with a series of memorable short films that revitalized the fairy tale genre. Combining elements of German Expressionism with modern dance/theater, Kaplan produced beautifully haunting worlds that lingered beyond his films’ relatively short running times (twelve minutes being the longest). Just over a decade later, these works are finally available on home video for the world to appreciate. While Little Red Riding Hood is the undeniable standout, the others—Little-Suck-a-Thumb and The Frog King—are worthwhile efforts that prove Little Red Riding Hood was no fluke.
The most widely celebrated of the shorts, Little Red Riding Hood (1997) features the perfectly cast 16-year-old Christina Ricci as that story’s infamous hero. Yet this time, Kaplan turns his version into a metaphor for budding sexuality, making the wolf not a typically frightening animal, but a sexy, muscular male dancer who lurches and writhes in the woods and who takes in Little Red Riding Hood’s sensual striptease with wide, hungry eyes. In Kaplan’s version, Little Red Riding Hood is just beginning to understand the power she has to influence men/predators with her sexuality, and she gets frisky with this. Without giving anything away, Kaplan revamps the film’s ending to more poetically explore this theme. Adding immeasurable playfulness is the hilarious narration by Quentin Crisp. Combine that with an atmospheric presentation that recalls both the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the mood of Night of the Hunter, and you have a modern short film classic.
Of the remaining two films, Little Suck-a-Thumb is the other standout (while The Frog King is good, it nonetheless feels like a rehearsal for the main event that would be LRRH). Little Suck-a-Thumb tells the story of a boy who is warned by his mother not to suck his thumbs at night or a creepy man will sneak into his room and snip his thumbs off. Here, Kaplan ups the black humor ante, yet the music and performances and set design maintain a thoroughly creepy tone. In many ways, the overall impact is similar to Mary Hestan’s He Was Once, yet Kaplan owes a more direct stylistic debt to German Expressionism. It’s a genuinely unsettling blend of humor and horror. One could imagine a child watching this and becoming scarred for life. It’s scarring enough watching it as an adult.