by Steve Habrat
Perhaps one of the most visually striking werewolf films every released is director Neil Jordan’s 1984 cult classic The Company of Wolves, a fairy-tale horror film that explores a young girl’s dreamlike journey into womanhood. Based on short stories by Angela Carter, The Company of Wolves is an eerie reworking of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, molding it into a complex look at sexual maturity and the idea that all men are beasts in disguise. At a mere hour and thirty minutes, The Company of Wolves drags in places with its storytelling, but the visual side of the film is never short of astounding as Jordan’s camera explores a labyrinth of gnarled trees, cobwebs, and gloomy 18th century villages. While it is easy to loose yourself in the gothic set design, Jordan also makes sure that he gives you quite a few good scares throughout the film’s runtime. One of the keys to the werewolf horror film is an unblinking transformation sequence, and let it be known that The Company of Wolves features several transformation scenes that will simultaneously gross you out and petrify you for life. To this very day, the effects of the transformation scenes top anything you would see in a CGI heavy blockbuster.
The Company of Wolves begins in modern day, with a young girl named Rosaleen (played by Sarah Patterson) sound asleep in her bedroom surrounded by dolls and stuffed animals. We then enter her dream world, where she is mourning the death of her sister with her parents (played by David Warner and Tusse Silberg) and her Granny (played by Angela Lansbury). A wolf has killed Rosaleen’s sister, and while her parents come to terms with the death, she is sent off to live with Granny in the woods. While at Granny’s cabin, Rosaleen is treated to several cautionary tales about men being wolves in disguise, and she is also warned to stay far away from men whose eyebrows meet in the middle. Granny also warns her to never stray from the path when she is walking through the woods. After a few weeks, Rosaleen returns to her home, and when she arrives she finds that a young amorous boy (played by Shane Johnstone) has developed a crush on her. One day, Rosaleen decides to take a walk through the forest with the amorous boy, but as they wander the woods, they realize that there is a wolf prowling around. Terrified, the two rush home to warn the villagers about the lurking threat. Enraged, the villagers storm the woods to capture and kill the wolf. After setting a trap and pumping the beast full of bullets, they believe they have rid the woods of evil, but a few days later Rosaleen decides to make a visit to Granny’s and it appears that there is still a threat in the woods waiting to strike.
While a good majority of werewolf films ask the viewer to sympathize with the hairy beasts, The Company of Wolves seems to show no compassion for its werewolves. Whether it’s through the cautionary tales Rosaleen hears from her Granny or if it’s the final face-to-face confrontation, Jordan never really offers the viewer a sympathetic monster that struggles with their full-moon curse. In fact, a majority of the male characters seem to somewhat enjoy their monstrous transformations, all of which are pretty grotesque. This implication that all men are dogs waiting to prey on young girls could stem from Carter, who co-wrote the script with Jordan. While the feminist approach does offer food for thought, Jordan manages to milk several terrifying transformation scenes that deliver on the gore while also sending a few shivers. In one tale told to Rosaleen, a young traveler (played by Stephen Rea) marries a young woman whom he abandons on their wedding night. Several years later, the young woman has remarried, but the young traveler returns for his bride. After pushing him away, the traveler is enraged and begins to transform right before our very eyes. In true werewolf horror fashion, the camera rarely cuts away, allowing the viewer to glimpse him pulling strips of skin from his face. In graphic close ups, we see his muscles and bones pulling, grinding, and stretching into the features of a wolf, complimented by horrible shrieks and screams. It’s amazing and the use of practical special effects has allowed the sequence to still stand up.
Equally impressive are the performances, which all keep us transfixed on the stylish drama playing out on the screen. Sarah Patterson’s Rosaleen is sweet and innocent as she snakes her way though a knotted forest prowling with panting wolves. Her final confrontation with Micha Bergese’s huntsman is mesmerizing, emitting female empowerment while also showing a bit of understanding for the threat that has backed her against a cabin wall. Angela Lansbury brings the star power as Granny, a little old lady with plenty of wisdom about what is waiting to pull her granddaughter into sexual maturity. Shane Johnstone also holds a bit of innocence as the amorous boy, who pines after Rosaleen and searches desperately for an opening for a kiss. Stephen Rea flashes a softer side but then turns on us with an evil that will undoubtedly haunt your dreams. Also on board is Dawn Archibald as a vengeful pregnant woman, who tracks down the rich nobleman that abandoned her (there is no fury quite like a woman scorned). There is also Terence Stamp in an uncredited role as the Devil, who sells a mysterious potion to a young boy with some sinister side effects.
Another stand out element of The Company of Wolves is its must-see set design that simultaneously adds an enchanting surrealism and a gothic chill to the film. Almost every single frame plays up the dead forests, snowy graveyards, and quite villages, all of which look like they were left over from a lost Hammer horror film from the 1950s. Jordan doesn’t let the set design and effects do all the heavy lifting when it comes to the scares. In addition to the slimy transformations, the viewer is subjected to a nightmarish opening that finds one character being attacked by giant dolls that have sprung to life inside that misty forest. There is also the tale of the young pregnant girl confronting the wealthy nobleman on his wedding day, a scene that finds the pregnant girl casting spells and turning the dog like guests into wolves—something that is glimpsed through a cracked mirror. There is also the white-knuckle conclusion, with a pack of wolves bursting through the dream bubble and entering the modern world. In their wake they leave shattered glass and trampled dolls, suggesting that innocence has been shattered and sexual maturity/liberation has arrived. Overall, The Company of Wolves is a gothic, eerie, and intelligent take on Little Red Riding Hood. The film’s feminist perspective could have been overshadowed by the moody sets and unflinching special effects, but Jordan manages to keep things stable even when certain places start to drag.
The Company of Wolves is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If one is to break down the subgenres of the horror genre, it can be separated into three separate groups—the horror of personality, demonic horror, and the horror of Armageddon. The first subgenre, horror of personality, can often be the most terrifying of the three subgenres because the monster is ultimately our fellow man. While Targets and Psycho are the two films that are often praised for starting this subgenre, neither chilled me like Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs. Masquerading as a drama and a thriller, Peckinpah’s growling film sits firmly as one of the most horrifying motion pictures I’ve ever sat through. It fits securely into the horror of personality subgenre and it leaves the viewer shaken for days after seeing it. Perhaps it’s the fact that a young Dustin Hoffman, an actor you would never picture in a film of this sort, gives this film its disconcerting spirit. The audience would never equate him with a role that requires him to shed his skittish nice guy roles and descend into a quivering, bug-eyed monster when his back is pushed against the wall. I’ve caught some flack for allowing this to occupy a spot on my scariest movies ever made, but I maintain that Straw Dogs is indeed a horror film. It will scare you and it will send you away locking your doors at night. And perhaps investing in a mantrap.
Director Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) follows wimpy American mathematician David Sumner (Hoffman) and his stunning wife Amy (Played by Susan George) as they move to rural England so David can peacefully work on research. Their quiet life is soon interrupted by a group of bullying locals working construction at their new home. The locals consistently poke fun at David and lust after his gorgeous wife. When David finds their beloved cat dead and hanging in their closet one evening, Amy demands that David confront the men as she suspects that they are responsible for this gruesome act (Still convinced it’s not a horror movie?). Simultaneously, the film keeps a watchful eye on Henry (Played by David Warner), a pedophile who currently walks the small town streets. The townsfolk are aware of his troubled past and consistently complain about his interaction with children. A young girl Janice seduces Henry one evening and when her brother comes calling for her, Henry accidentally kills the girl. Her father, Tom Hedden (Played by Peter Vaughan) begins a manhunt for Henry and rounds up the men who are also terrorizing David to find Henry. The two plots meet and the film ends in a sweaty, bloody, and unsettling siege on David’s home.
If you have ever seen a film from Sam Peckinpah, you understand his ability to heighten tension before an explosion of action and or violence. As an example, watch the opening moments of his famed western The Wild Bunch. Here, Peckinpah does the same thing within the first few minutes of this particular film. David goes to a local pub to purchase cigarettes and while in the pub, we meet some of the leering, ticking time bomb locals. They appear vaguely animalistic and predatory as they take giant swigs of ale (a deliberate appearance that I’m sure Peckinpah was aiming for) and we can tell they lust after violence as well as David’s wife. They are looking for a good fight. Two of them even go as far to ask David about violence in the United States. They never convey disgust or concern about the violence over seas, but hints of amusement at what David has to say. The stress on the viewer, which stems from the constant threat of a confrontation, is what builds the terror to staggering heights.
While Straw Dogs is a film about the animal within, lurking even in the most sophisticated of human beings, the film is also a commentary on territory and property (“I will not allow violence against this house!”). David is just a pup to the big dogs that prowl the town’s streets. Tom is the symbolic pact leader of the locals. One of them even goes as far to tell David “We always protect our own!” It’s a bit heavy handed at times, but it does add a chill or two near the end. Especially when David snaps from the runt into a seething predator that will not stop his defense until the last antagonist is dead and bleeding. The film also offers up a disturbing rape sequence in which Amy is rapped by two of the attackers. During the first rape, she shows glimmers of pleasure and then shrieks in terror when a second attacker mounts her. The scene suggests that the attackers are under the impression that they can claim anything and this situation rears its ugly head again during the final siege. David and one of the attackers Charlie have a savage, doglike fight for Amy. It’s bloody and ends with a death that will have you covering your eyes.
Straw Dogs will linger with you for days after you have seen it. The film packs a number of savage death sequences in which Peckinpah slows the action down and gives you a pristine view of the carnage. It’s also Hoffman’s silent slip from a rational man into a beast that will haunt your dreams. He so expertly blurs the line between sane and insane that when he attacks one of the men at the end, there is an aura of unpredictability. How we will he strike next? Trust me, wait for the scene with boiling cooking oil. It makes me cringe just replaying it. Straw Dogs is a film that forces the viewer to analyze outwardly, but the scariest trick up this film’s sleeve is the analysis that points inward. Sure, we can debate all day about the horrors lurking in the people around us, but this film will also make us stop and think about ourselves. Am I capable of something like this? Would I savagely kill or choose death at the hands of someone else? Not necessarily the easiest question in the world, is it? That is what makes Straw Dogs one of the scariest movies I have ever seen. The self-reflection it will no doubt evoke from the view. It will send you away petrified of something you can’t escape from—yourself. Grade: A
Straw Dogs is now available on Blu-ray.