The Company of Wolves (1984)

Director: Neil Jordan

By Roderick Heath

“What big teeth you have!
She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the clamour of the forest’s Liebestod but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.”

—Angela Carter, “The Company of Wolves” in The Bloody Chamber

Former poet and novelist Neil Jordan had one film under his belt, 1982’s Angel, when he attempted to adapt for the screen several werewolf-themed stories from British novelist Angela Carter’s acclaimed collection of retold fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. His and Carter’s resulting screenplay for The Company of Wolves took some cues from Carter’s own radio adaptation and stands as something of a last gasp for the gothic horror movie, as well as an intelligent and original cross-breeding of genre motifs with something altogether more surreal and adroitly evocative. Inspired by the look of old Hammer and Roger Corman films, Jordan interpolated a more knowing, explicably symbolic, almost postmodern approach to the genre. The result is one of the most interesting and intelligent of ‘80s films of the fantastic, but also an underachieving work that doesn’t quite live up to its boundless potential.

Carter’s method with her stories was to interrogate the psychosexual codes in gothic fiction and fairytales and reinterpret them in altogether more cogently sensualised, darkly tangled, and evocative forms. The story “The Company of Wolves” transmutes Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” into a fable of burgeoning sexuality in which the wolf is insatiable male sexuality incarnate and the girl becomes master of her own desire. Jordan’s adaptation combined this story with other tales from the collection, adopting a narrative strategy like a Chinese puzzle-box. There is a framing story of a contemporary teenage girl, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), from a bourgeois Thatcherite family comprising her father (David Warner) and mother (Tusse Silberg) fretting about her self-isolating angst, and her older sister Alice (Georgia Slowe) abusing her for using her lipstick. Rosaleen has locked herself in her bedroom, Alice’s lipstick still on her mouth, as she suffers through the (hinted) travails of her first period. She sleeps restlessly, plunging into a dark dreamland where her bedroom transmutes into a dark, snarled forest through which Alice runs, pursued by wolves who bring her down and kill her.

In this dreamscape, Rosaleen’s parents are peasants in a small forest village that mourns Alice’s death. Rosaleen’s willful, wisdom-spitting Granny (Angela Lansbury) warns her to learn the moral of Alice’s death: always stick to the forest paths. Granny proceeds to educate her in other aspects of woodland lore: never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle, and run like hell if she sees a man standing naked amongst the trees, for werewolves always take their clothes off before transforming. Granny knits a bright red shawl for Rosaleen whilst telling her anecdotes of werewolf lore. In one story, a young village woman (Kathryn Pogson) married a tinker (Stephen Rea) who excused himself from their wedding night and never came back. He returned a year later, after she had remarried, and, enraged by this betrayal, began to transmute into his wolf form. Fortunately, her second husband (Jim Carter) arrived in time to cleave his head off, and then beat her for letting him in.

Rosaleen, pursued by a homely, but passionate lad of the village (Shane Johnstone), begins to take up her Granny’s mantle as a storyteller with an edge of a seer, conjuring stories that may come from within her mind and yet also seem somehow linked to a hidden reality about her. Her tales include one about a witch (Dawn Archibald) who, impregnated and then abandoned by her noble lover (Richard Morant), walks into his wedding party and transforms the guests into wolves, and, later, offersa tale about a lonely wolf-girl who crawls out of the village’s well and is protected by the local priest (Graham Crowden) before returning to the netherworld. Meanwhile, the village is terrorised by animal attacks, and the men arrange a trap that successfully lures a wolf, which they kill, but when Rosaleen’s father brings the paw he cut off back as a trophy, he finds it has turned into a human hand. One day when making the trek to Granny’s, Rosaleen encounters a rakish, impudent aristocratic hunter (Micha Bergese), who taunts her with his ability to navigate the forest with a compass and bets her a kiss he can beat her to Granny’s. Bad luck for Granny that he wins his bet.

Most folk tales such as Carter was revising combine pungent metaphors for familiar physical and psychological phenomenon with a simple, pointed moral and message. As such, they were modes of education, of transmitting cautionary lessons and artful fright to keep the kids close to home and hearth. This purpose is thoroughly refracted through an acerbic modern eye in Carter’s stories and Jordan’s film, evoking the way premodern cultures sustained a body of lore—particularly feminine lore—through traditions and intergenerational story-sharing. Unless she wants to fall victim to the wolf in man, sticking to the well-worn path, both morally and physically, through the tangled thickets of the dark, nightmare-hiding wood is the firm rule Rosaleen must follow. Rosaleen’s mother, however, after copulating with her husband, tells Rosaleen that if there’s an animal in man, there’s one to meet it in women; not unexpectedly, there’s a chill distance between Granny and her daughter that Rosaleen has to decode as a difference in generational understandings. Rosaleen then becomes a bridge, a synthesiser, deducing new meanings and lessons through her own understanding. Where Granny offers warnings and rules, Rosaleen offers parables of justice and redemption.

Jordan’s stylisation both pays homage to the cinematic traditions of the gothic film, but also yearns to dig far deeper into the history of the genre, to before it had been mostly detached from the folk heritage. The imagery blurs firm demarcations between genres. As Rosaleen’s dreaming takes over the narrative at the outset, objects in her room, like her dolls and toys, become grotesquely oversized and begin moving as the edges of the room blur into a forest realm; then the process reverses at the end. Jordan offers up some startling sequences, particularly in the anecdote of the wedding party, where the foppish guests, resplendent in wigs and gowns, explode their clothes with claws and hair and snouts and dash off into the woods in howling anguish, leaving the witch to bow to the party’s menservants, who applaud her and break out the champagne: it’s an almost perfectly distilled scene. The werewolf transformations are similarly bizarre spins on what had already become a familiar special-effect art after The Howling (1980) and An American Werewolf in London (1981): when Rea’s aggrieved husband transforms, he peels off his skin in a gruesomely powerful vision of self-consuming rage, revealing the bloody musculature of the wolf within, and later, when the Hunter transforms, a wolf’s snout springs fully formed out from his mouth.

The Company of Wolves is certainly no standard werewolf film, yet it stands as a strange cousin to the same year’s more popular A Nightmare on Elm Street. Like Wes Craven’s film, it is built out of dreams within dreams, offering literalised figurations for the terrors of teenagers inheriting the loaded lore of their elders, becoming aware of the corrosive aberrations of adulthood when the certitudes of given reality suddenly give way and terrifying paradoxes become apparent: both films end with monsters exploding out of dreams and into the lives of their pubescent heroines. These films each represent a brief, but promising moment when the horror genre was aware of its own subliminal nature in a fashion that hadn’t been seen since the heyday of the expressionists. There’s also wit in the sequence in which Granny recounts the anecdote of how most werewolves are created when the bastard sons of priests meet the Devil, who gives them an unction that transforms them: in the version Jordan offers, Beelzebub is played by Terence Stamp (and Rosaleen is his blonde chauffeur), and he comes rolling up to one such young man in a 1920s car (Jordan had first tried to get Andy Warhol). And yet this touch reeks of a joke surrealism that’s against the grain of what the project is attempting.

Nonetheless, it’s easy to see why Carter’s writings appealed to Jordan, whose other early work sported a light frosting of the surreal: the motifs in Mona Lisa (1986) and The Miracle (1990) of lost children, hazy sexuality, and questing fathers; the reality-bending outlook of the young psycho in The Butcher Boy (1997); the changelings of The Crying Game (1993) and Breakfast on Pluto (2005). And the visual flourishes Jordan brought to such works reflect an artistic temperament with one foot planted in reality and the other in the metamorphic realm of magic-realism. Jordan brings a distinct sensibility to the tale, particularly in designating the wolf-husband of the first legend a “traveling man,” a tinker familiar from the Irish landscape, not specified in Carter’s story, lending parochial familiarity with the kinds of prejudices that can be encoded in such mythology. That story ends with the unforgettable image of the young man’s head, sliced from his lupine body, bobbing in a pail of milk: maternal sustenance, death, innocence, and villainy all churned together.

And yet Jordan, who was still learning his cinematic craft at the time, fails to fully capture that mythic perception here, and more problematically, can’t come to grips with the potent sensuality Carter was able to offer in her precise prose. The recreation of the set-bound atmosphere of classic horror movies is lovingly precise in its flagrant artifice, courtesy of production designer Anton Furst, pointing forward, in its way, to Tim Burton’s less layered, but spiritually similar takes on the folk-tale and gothic traditions in Sleepy Hollow (1999), Big Fish (2002) and Corpse Bride (2005): indeed, Furst is most famous for his work on Burton’s Batman (1989). Whilst the structure of The Company of Wolves does not pretend to fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, and the various interrelated stories do comment on each other, the final impression is more of disjointedness rather than dream-logic. Unlike a film very similar in its essence, Jaromil Jirês’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), Jordan didn’t know enough about movie-making then to fragment his visual narrative successfully into a trancelike indistinctness, and the result is a film both gorgeous to look at yet both curiously literal-minded and fussily indirect.

Take the misjudged moment when the Hunter kills Granny, her severed head a mere plaster façade that shatters against the wall, a rather pointless flourish, especially because in the story, the old woman’s desiccated bones rattle under the bed whilst the girl and her animal lover consummate a dark desire, a grotesque but canny reduction to a fine point of how new life springs from and finally ignores the old. Jordan seems somewhat afraid of the deeper recesses to be found in the material. The fact that he cast barely pubescent actress Patterson as Rosaleen necessitated his excising the eruptive sexuality that Carter evoked in the final few lines of her story before her heroine went to sleep wrapped in the wolf’s paws: “She will lay his fearful head on her laps and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage wedding ceremony.” Jordan’s touch feels far too precious for such stuff, and, in his wimpier edition, Rosaleen merely turns into a wolf, too, and runs into the forest with her hirsute beau when the villagers track them down. Where the film needs finally to achieve galvanising fantasy revelry, it settles for a potted pretension.

The Company of Wolves doesn’t quite work as adaptation and fails to fully resolve as an individual film. But it’s a long way from being a dismissable or inessential work: scenes from it stick in the memory like few films of the past 30 years. It’s certainly the best of Jordan’s several flirtations with the genre, including his failed ghost comedy High Spirits (1988), the psych-thriller In Dreams (1999), and especially his murky blockbuster adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), which likewise portrayed a taunting, fey male overlord’s bizarre relationship with a prematurely wise girl. The Company of Wolves is still one of the most intellectually dextrous and least veiled evocations of a folk-mythological past in English-language cinema, and a fascinating by-product of the British horror tradition. As Rosaleen learns in the final driving moments, changelings can awaken from a dream but can’t always forget what they see in themselves.

  • Christine spoke:
    15th/07/2011 to 4:46 pm

    I enjoyed the gorgeousness and atmosphere of the movie. Same can be said about Interview with the Vampire, although characters left me cold.

  • Rod spoke:
    15th/07/2011 to 10:05 pm

    Oh wow, a comment on this piece finally. I share your sentiments, Christine. IwtV bored the living crap out of me, and your comment about cold characters does capture something of why it did: I could just never care at all about those mumbling himbo depressives and their utterly diffuse story.

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