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The Company of Wolves Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 20, 2009

    The Company of Wolves Review

    Making a furry-footed bound from SD to Blu-ray comes Neil Jordan's lushly surreal delight from 1984, The Company Of Wolves. This region-free disc from ITV DVD claws another entry in the Full Moon Frenzy series of reviews celebrating cinematic werewolfry and the different ways in which filmmakers have treated that most hirsute of monsters over the years. The following review is a slightly extended version of the one I wrote for the original steel-book collector's edition from a few years ago.

    One of the most unusual and allegorical studies of the myth, The Company Of Wolves is a haunting, poetic and seductive film, a fantasy that uses our lycanthropic friends as symbols of sexual freedom, painting them as both repulsive and beguiling and creating, in the process, one of the most visually and thematically dense experiences in the genre, as a whole. There are some who claim that this is not strictly a horror film and, even weighty subtext aside, it does not conform to the usual tropes of audience expectation. But there are still moments of powerful suspense, a terrific, all-pervading sense of the macabre and a gleeful intent to rip up the narrative rug and plunge the viewer into a morass of both dreams and nightmares.

    “Little girls, this seems to say ... Never stop upon the way. Never trust a stranger friend ... No-one knows where it may end. As you're pretty, so be wise ... Wolves may lurk in every guise. Now as then, 'tis simple truth ... Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.”

    Although the vampire is forever associated with sex, his powers are ones of seduction and sensuality. The vampire may crave the fluids of his or her victim, but the process of obtaining it, however erotic it may appear to be on the surface, is not actually a particularly sexual act. The werewolf, on the other hand, stemming from the bestial side of things, is, or rather can be viewed as a purely sexual monster. Harbouring this animal nature within the constraints of vulnerable human flesh and bone is the essence of the werewolf myth. The vampire may seal his affair with a deadly kiss, but the werewolf desires the flesh with the need to consume it, his very act of ripping and tearing a victim one of rape and penetration. Joe Dante's excellent The Howling (1981 - the year of the big werewolf-movie comeback) and Mike Hodges' disappointing Wolf (1994) both portrayed the werewolf as a sexual creature, but with much baser results ... The Howling actually gave us rutting werewolves as well, which just had to be a first. Even Hammer's The Curse Of The Werewolf (1961) linked the creature's savagery with sex and, before even that, 1957's I Was A Teenage Werewolf, starring a young Michael Landon, featured a transformation actually brought on by the sight of a pretty and athletic girl performing on the parallel bars! Thus, the werewolf has been readily associated with crude emotion and base sexual instinct for quite some time. Alluding to this unsettling notion, the late revisionist author Angela Carter found the perfect metaphor in the copious cautionary tales of the Brothers Grimm and their main influence, French writer Charles Perrault, subverting them into a more salacious and dangerous medium for modern readers with her feminist-slanted revamps. Her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber - itself a reference to female puberty - contained a simple fable entitled The Company Of Wolves that she thought would be the most movie-translatable of all her work. Approaching director Neil Jordan who was, himself, an author, with the 12-page tale, the Irishman found it immediately enthralling and full of potential, both cinematic and thematically challenging. So, together with Carter, he wrote the screenplay, fleshing out her original prose with layers of metaphor and shovelling in a sack-full of subtext. They agreed on the remixing of popular fairytales and on the fears and desires of female adolescence as the main thrust of the narrative and, in so doing, placed upon the screen one of the most striking, imaginative and thought-provoking of all werewolf movies.

    “A wolf may be more than he seems. He may come in many disguises ... the worst kind of wolves are hairy on the inside, and when they bite you they drag you with them to hell.”

    What Neil Jordan's adaptation succeeds so well in doing is in combining these more familiar fairytales with societal superstition, manufacturing a coming-of-age commentary that takes puberty and female sexuality to its ultimate extreme. The story is amazingly simple. A young girl called Rosaleen, stunningly played by then 13-year old Sarah Patterson, has fallen into a deep, dream-riddled slumber, whilst outside her locked bedroom door her older sister, Alice (Georgia Slowe), calls her names and mocks her for pinching her makeup. Rosaleen is still an innocent, her sister, we can ascertain, is not. Her dreams float her out into the woods and relocate her and her family to the dark superstitious times of a fairytale 17th Century forest hamlet and unravel her burgeoning fears and desires of approaching adolescence into a series of set-piece strands concerning moralistic repression and wolfish excitement. The world is male-dominated and all around her are warnings and castigations regarding men and their allegedly vile intentions. Angela Lansbury assumes the role of the superficially friendly old Granny who takes Rosaleen under her voluminous-sleeved arm in the wake of her dream-sister's death - killed, as it happens, by a wolf in the woods - and seeks to keep the girl on the right path. But Granny's proverb-littered demeanour, all dire warnings and cautionary advice, only serves as a series of signposts highlighting Rosaleen's own unavoidable downfall into the clutches of the beast. Werewolves are everywhere. Only Rosaleen's father, David Warner, and the other villagers, including American Werewolf's Brian Glover (the famed Tetley Tea-man who should, at this stage, been a complete authority on closed-community-lycanthropy), attempt to deal with the threat with anything they can that approaches the traditional means - guns and traps - leaving the majority of the encounters as sexual role-playing, stories-within-stories and ribald pubescent fantasy. With Granny's warnings falling upon deaf ears, the scene is set for Rosaleen, in the scarlet cloak and hood of yore that Granny had knitted for Alice, but has now passed on to her, to meet the destiny that every girl will one day confront. Indeed, anyone expecting a straight-up werewolf yarn will come away scratching their heads with a frustrated claw ... but, for this fable, the power of dreams and the libido-laden subconscious is much more important than a simple, howl-accompanied stalking out on the misty moors. The horror is there, all right, but it is delivered in a manner that is unorthodox to the genre - mood, atmosphere and disquiet are key ingredients but they go hand in hand with the enticing flavour of dark and elicit promiscuity. For, in The Company Of Wolves, death is merely the loss of innocence. But even this knowledge makes the confrontation in the forest with a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle no less sinister or frightening.

    “Who's come to sing us carols, then?”

    “Only my companions, darling. I love the company of wolves. Look out of the window and you'll see them.”

    The screenplay is amazingly literate. Dialogue is multi-layered and soaked with fruity metaphor, so many lines beautifully quotable. Granny's words of wisdom are extremely memorable - haunting, crotchety, imbued with a sense of unreasoned paranoia and menace. She spins proverbs out of thin air, crafting old world lunacy and distrust from thin air. Angela Lansbury's delivery is like a spider weaving a verbal web between her mouth and young Rosaleen's ears. Rosaleen, herself, seems to absorb many of these observations, regurgitating them later, and with the benefit of both naiveté and experience, unlike her close-guarded and intolerant Granny, who is merely handing down such trivia from those who once warned her. “They say seeing is believing. But I'd never swear to it,” runs Rosaleen's philosophy, tempting the men she encounters into revealing their true nature, challenging them, as it were, to do their worst and, symbolically, for the wolf to come out of the shadows. All this heavily-textured dialogue is uttered with a hushed iambic pentameter, Jordan in his commentary actually stating that he wanted the lines for one particular sequence delivered in rhyming couplets. Such a poetic and thoroughly articulate style is one of the film's keener traits, elevating a simple, episodic meandering through the heart's hushed desires into something much more eloquent and fascinating. The film feels uniquely British and is certainly one of the canniest and most intelligent that this country has produced since the fifties in a genre that normally forsakes such intuition and psychological incision.

    This is all these beasts understand. Kill them before they kill you.”

    The film, thankfully, also riffs on many werewolf myths and legends, anchoring its beastly connections still more emphatically. The ancient story of a hunter or, as is so often recited, a returning Roman soldier cleaving the paw from a wolf that has attacked him and then discovering to his horror that his wife is lying stricken at home with a severed hand is recreated here when David Warner hacks at a beast in the woods and then produces the paw to impress his family, and finding to the mutual horror of all that it has become a fragile human hand in the passage of time since the attack. Terence Stamp cameos (uncredited) as the Devil, riding through the haunted woods in a purely surreal white Rolls Royce chauffeured by Rosaleen, herself, in a white wig and preying on lost souls by the wayside. A debauched wedding banquet is disrupted by a heavily pregnant gypsy-girl who proceeds to curse the revellers, turning them into a pack of ravening wolves. The sight of these lupine party-goers still bedecked in their ruffled finery is at once farcical and startling. A female changee tears open her prison-like bodice to reveal a fine pair of hairy breasts and the servants struggle to keep order amidst the chaos. Check out the poor peacock out patrolling his lawn that gets trampled by the wolves as they race off after wrecking the banquet. This type of scenario has been played out in many medieval tales of comeuppance and can even act as a strange sort of revenge for the treatment meted out to the beggar at the hands of the sadistic marquis at the start of Hammer's Curse Of The Werewolf, if you are in a mood to link this lycanthropic movie bloodline together. But the film delights in such darkly comical episodes, becoming a strange daisy-chain of the supernatural and the gothic sublime. Literal sense is often thrown to the wind, but the meanings behind such an emotional narrative are barely called into question, the incidents seen or spoken of throughout the film meant to be absorbed on a deeper and often Freudian level. In fact, if the eminent psychologist had ever been able to produce a movie to prove his theories, it would, no doubt, look very much like The Company Of Wolves.

    “Are you very much afraid?”

    ”It wouldn't do me much good to be afraid, would it? What big eyes you have.”

    ”All the better to see you with.”

    ”They say seeing is believing, but I'd never swear to it.”

    “My, what big arms you have.”

    “All the better to hug you with.”

    Jesus, what big teeth you have!

    The excitable gaggle of wolves pursuing Alice through a dream landscape of Victoriana - fanciful princess paraphernalia draped with cobwebs, a doll's house overrun with vermin, a grandfather clock that chimes away the last shreds of virginity and lecherous giant-sized teddy bears that seem to lurk within the shadows of an enchanted wood - all set to George Fentons's thunderous score provoke a subverted atmosphere of twisted childhood nostalgia, innocence poisoned by its own dream-stewed misinterpretations. The use of a tumbling flood of wolves during the climax mimics this scene-setting prologue with an air of revelation and adolescent transformation, the wolves becoming the symbol of innocence lost, or at least the knowledge that its loss is as important as it is inevitable. The two scenes play off one another, not as opposites, but as two individual interpretations of the same event. Sarah views her sister's fall as something tragic, something to be feared. Yet, when it comes to her turn, she is ready and defiant, fully understanding that this experience is unavoidable and, indeed, necessary. This final rite of passage is not so much a surrealist episode as a summation of all the hopes and fears and desires that have gone before. No longer a dream, this is an awakening ... and, as such, possibly one of the happiest endings you could have. But before this moment of inspiring transcendence, there is much more to explore in Jordan's grim, but timeless fairytale.

    “Your Granny spoils you. She makes you think you're something special. That red shawl ...”

    The film belongs to Sarah Patterson. Her ability to deal with a character that is going through the same emotional and hormonal changes that she, herself, is undergoing in reality is remarkable, although it takes a director as skilled and as tactful as Neil Jordan to allow her such freedom. He would go on to work similar magic with the young Kirsten Dunst in Interview With The Vampire, having her play an adult woman with an adult woman's desires but trapped eternally within the body of a vampirised child. Patterson, undeniably attractive, takes the teasing nature of excitable puberty and turns it into something akin to a weapon, leading snot-nosed local urchins into wooded danger, giving Granny serious cause for concern and arousing passions in precisely those who are most likely to be corrupted by them. But if her effect upon the local male population is striking, then the effect that her burgeoning sexuality has upon herself is devastating. Throughout her fever dreams, the illusionary Rosaleen doesn't so much stray from the beaten path as positively cavort away from it. She may listen intently to Granny's wise words, but despite being no village slut or teenage harlot, she nevertheless has inexplicable desires raging within her that she has no intention of ignoring, let alone suppressing. Thus, in many ways, Jordan's film is much more honest and open and intelligent about the issues surrounding the coming of age than most dramas that set out to explicitly explore it. Provocative stuff. But, like the best depicted elements of the classic horror film, such things are more effective when merely suggested and implied, than shown up-front.

    “I never knew a wolf could cry.”

    The Beast-in-Man is, of course, the most potent metaphor that the film deals with, so it is vitally important that we, at least, get to see this horror exposed on-screen. Christopher Tucker was the man who created the awesome prosthetics for John Hurt's portrayal of The Elephant Man but his effects-work here, however audacious and imaginative they may be, seemed poor even back when the film first came out. I like the fact that his werewolves literally claw their way out of the human guise that covers them, really making the point about the beast residing within. But the snouts that poke out of latex mouths, joke-shop eyeballs rolling around waxy heads and elongated tongues snaking about rubbery stretched faces just look comical and juvenile. The animatronic wolf that Rodger Shaw crafted and manipulated for the beast that Stephen Rea 's wedding-night eloper becomes is particularly naff and is almost deflating enough to take you out of the film for a moment or two. Partly, this could be the point. We are supposed to be viewing the events - or perceived events - from the viewpoint of a feverish, confused girl for whom clinging onto the values of her childish past has become a matter of life and death. Therefore, Rosaleen's imagining of such contortions and naked writhing is sure to be somewhat artificial and contrived. Her virginal mind would be prone to naïve visualisations of things she has never seen. But, hey, I am just being overly lenient here, although the point I'm making, I feel certain, is still valid. If the makeup isn't the most accomplished around, then kudos must go to the level of insane creativity that went into concocting it in the first place. Heads are lopped off and transform prosaically into china as they fly through the air; a wolf's noggin sinks in slow-motion into a pail of milk, only to resurface as that belonging to the human it once was. Werewolves tear the flesh from their bones to leave themselves looking flayed and red-raw - muscle, sinew and tendon exposed and glistening in spectacular pre-Hellraiser detail. A boy, foolishly investigating the woods, is bestowed a gift that turns him into a tree, atop which Rosaleen will find a nest of eggs that hatch little carved effigies of children. Surprisingly it is the simplest of things that are the most effective. The glowing red eyes for the wolves in the pack, for instance, are tremendously eerie and striking. Or the tufty wisps of hair that meet over the bridge of the huntsman's nose. Or the blood-red moon poised over a forest grown dark and menacing that morphs into the fiery eye of a predator lying in wait. Evocative stage-bound sets add so much weight and heightened realism to the drama, and the film benefits considerably from some terrific design work from the late Anton Furst, who would, famously, go on to work with Tim Burton on Batman. Wooded glens abound, with phallic mushrooms sprouting brazenly from glistening mounds and tussocks. Little cottages peep warmly through spindly lattice-works of twigs and branches, the obviousness of the miniatures involved actually enhancing the fantasy. The painted background of an ethereal church lends fairytale depth to the bridge-and-well set during the heartbreaking “story of a wounded wolf” segment. And, of course, the tiny gothic hamlet looks as though plucked straight out of a medieval woodcut.

    Visually, the movie impresses, too. Brian Loftus' photography is enigmatic and insinuating. By turns voyeuristic and reproachful, the camerawork is effortlessly captivating and observant. The way it follows the packs of wolves careering around the woods, or the modern-day family's German Shepherd - who, naturally, has played a part in Rosaleen's dream-wolf concocting - as it runs pell-mell through the woods to greet its owners is fantastically achieved. There is a terrific moment early on, when Alice is being menaced in the forest of lost youth when the red-eyed wolves survey her ripe meat from a ridge and, as one single unit, move off in hot-blooded pursuit - you can sense the pack's excitement in one great united pant. The nightmarish incarnation of childhood toys, grown large and monstrous in the same scene, actually recall J.F. Sebastian's android companions in Blade Runner - comically incongruous and unnervingly clumsy at the same time. A shaft of rainbow light hitting the ground beside Rosaleen is a moment of pure incandescant magic, albeit one that is tainted with forbidden temptations. The image of wolves plunging in slow motion through walls, paintings and windows during the scary and fanciful finale pays homage to a similar scene at the end of Michael Wadleigh's brilliant Wolfen (1981 - see separate review), but is equally, and spellbindingly, enough to stand proud on its own four paws. Of course, the image of a beast pushing determinedly through a barrier that cannot hold it back for long, is also highly symbolic ... isn't it?

    “They say the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman. And, as it turns out, they're right. A fine gentleman.”

    The flavour and theme of Little Red Riding Hood is the overriding emphasis of the film, its temptations and its terrors pervade all. The pivotal and most gripping scene is obviously the big confrontation between a vulnerable young girl and the lustful, deceptive stranger she meets when she strays from the path leading to Granny's cottage. Rosaleen's meeting with the huntsman is classic stuff, the tale of Little Red Riding Hood grabbed by its medieval cloak and exposed for the all-too-real cautionary tale it really is, its message somehow even more relevant today than ever before. But, even here, Carter and Jordan play tricks and twist the perspective through 360 degrees of narrative manipulation. Victim becomes aggressor and monster becomes weakened and impotent. The would-be victim then finds compassion and understanding, the whole sequence playing out like a mini-movie, rife with symbolism, punctured by indelible imagery. Roles are reversed and sexual evolution is attained. Professional dancer and choreographer Micha Bergese, who plays the effete, yet intimidating huntsman, is awesome in the role. It may only be a relatively brief part, but he conjures up a character so unearthly, so intensely charismatic and mysterious that it is difficult not to fall for his eminently menacing charms. I love the way he slowly approaches his prey back at Granny's cottage, his head twitching with little dog-like movements as he listens intently to Rosaleen's every word. Cleverly, we don't feel the urge to warn Rosaleen away from him. Nor do we fear for her. This moment has been pre-ordained and the fact is that even if she didn't meet this particular rogue at this particular time, then it would be another soon after. Somehow, within this exquisitely crafted set-piece, our own values are corrupted. We are not Granny. We are not the over-protective parents. We want Rosaleen to gain the experience that she has so far danced, teasingly, out of reach of. But not for our own warped titillation. We want Rosaleen to evolve because we can feel her awkwardness and her curiosity at the burgeoning world around her, and we want her to transcend, to break the bonds. The film puts us in an awkward position ... and one that all parents must confront at some point. The letting go of a child is always a crucial moment, and one from which there is no going back ... for either the parents or for the child. The Company Of Wolves becomes a celebration of this irrevocable parting, and you have to admire Angela Carter and Neil Jordan for having the courage to place such an intimate moral conundrum at the heart of what is essentially a dark fantasy. It may be a fable about growing up and finding your place in a male-dominated world, but the wry comment on how grownups can patronise, blinker and smother their offspring is just as prevalent and interesting. Protecting your loved ones, it may as well be saying, is simply imprisoning them.

    “Once upon a time, when the village was asleep, a she-wolf came from the world below to the world above ...”

    The symbolism of the wolf as both divine and evil is a revelation. But don't go assuming that this feminist approach to such ideology has got it in the neck for blokes in general. On the surface it may seem biased and finger-pointing, but the truth, like the wolf, lies somewhere beneath this testosterone-baiting challenge. For, if Man is the Monster, then it is Woman who unleashes him in the first place. Rosaleen's mother, played by Tusse Silberg, actually comes out with the most telling line of all, when she informs her curious daughter that “if there is a beast in man, then it meets its match in woman,” which also magnifies something very reassuring - that Mother is almost always the most sensible person to turn to. But for all the fear and violence that the wolves - or hot-blooded menfolk, if we are to be accurate about it - inspire, Jordan still allows them much sympathy. The feminist angle is itself, hypocritical. With a mind and spirit now sexually awakened, Rosaleen eventually comes to realise that they - men/wolves - are just poor victims of their own desires ... desires that have been brought about by the female of the species. She, herself, assumes the role of wanton predator when she entertains the huntsman. It is not just his devious manipulations that place her in harm's way - her eagerness to discover the pleasures of the flesh and her own flirtatious nature provide him with all the fuel he needs to stoke his lycanthropic fire. And, when all said and done, these scenarios are all of her own creation. These are her dreams, her subconscious thoughts. If the climax of the film is puzzling then it is only because the truth of the narrative has been staring us in the face all along. Rosaleen's transformation from girl to woman is exactly akin to the metamorphosis of man into wolf, although not accompanied by air-bladders, animatronics or yards of stringy latex. And definitely no CG. The secret is that we are all wolves and the true enemies, perhaps unwittingly, are those who seek to suppress individualism and acceptance of one's sexuality. In other words, those closest to us ... our own providers and protectors.

    “I must just go out into the yard for a moment ... call of nature.”

    The Company Of Wolves is a strong, compelling film and one that remains a delight to this day. Its atmosphere is one of the macabre and the sly, medieval in visual splendour yet devoutly contemporary in style and meaning. Our allegiances are swapped and bandied about throughout though, ultimately, the wolves are the winners ... and I like that immensely. They are portrayed as the most natural things within this world, even if they are often visualised as outsiders, gypsies, travelling folk - traditionally the people that society that distrusts. They may be a metaphor for lust, but the cunning thing is that they do not represent animal nature at all, but human nature. Or rather human nature taken to its blissful extreme. No guilt, no repression ... the wolves are the most “adult” characters in the film. As an entry in the werewolf genre, Jordan's movie is artistic and insightful, its effects-shortcomings actually adding to its lean thematic drive, as though letting the juvenile and the childish visuals run with the grownup pack of the deeper, more adult tone and the complex characterisation of the well-structured screenplay. As a flight of fancy it is peerless and as a mark of imaginative British cinema it really has few equals. An outstanding film, folks, and one that places werewolves in a truly unique light - aggressors, lovers, victims and victors all at once. A very far cry from Lon Chaney Jnr's snarl and sniff approach, that's for sure.

    “And that's all I'll tell you ... because that's all I know.”