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Wild Werewolves: The Company of Wolves (1984)

The Company of Wolves #1

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.

The Company of Wolves #2

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.

Grade: B

The Company of Wolves is available on DVD.

V for Vendetta (2006)

by Steve Habrat

Among the superhero movie elite is without question director James McTeigue’s politically charged 2006 film V for Vendetta, based off of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name. Heavily critical of oppressive, war hungry governments who lie to their citizens and control through fear, it is very easy to read V for Vendetta as an attack on the ultra right wing extremists. Even if you do not quite agree with the politics of V for Vendetta, the film still has plenty to offer in the action and suspense department. Larry and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix boys) penned V for Vendetta, so you know you are in for one hell of a thrill ride when the bullets, knives, and fists start flying. Despite the heaping amount of praise I give this film, I do think it does have its fair share of flaws which cause it to stumble during its second act, especially when much of the focus is pulled off of the liberal-minded vigilante V, a monstrous experiment that backfires on all of those who were responsible. The story is so busy and tries to juggle so much at one time that you may find yourself hitting the rewind button out of confusion, at least on your first viewing. Things do clear themselves up a bit after revisiting the film a few times but certain points are still murky. Even so, you have to applaud the film’s reluctance to simplify itself, which is always invigorating in a superhero film.

The year is 2020 and much of the world is ravaged by civil war, disease, unrest, and chaos. Great Britain is under the control of a fascist Norsefire party, who act as a sort of Big Brother type. One evening, British Television Network employee Evey Hammon (Played by Natalie Portman) decides to make a trip to the home of her boss, Gordon Deitrich (Played by Stephen Fry), despite the government curfew that is firmly in place. The streets are partoled by “Fingerman,” a secret police force who takes orders from High Chancellor Adam Sutler (Played by John Hurt). Evey ends up bumping in to several “Fingerman,” who then attempt to rape and beat her but she is saved by a mysterious man in a Guy Fawkes mask. This man, who calls himself V (Played by Hugo Weaving), proceeds to take Evey to a rooftop that overlooks the Old Bailey, which he then proceeds to destroy. The next days, the Norsefire party attempts to cover up this attack but V infiltrates the BTN and takes credit for the attack. He then encourages the citizens of Great Britain to rise up against this tolterian force that oppresses them and join him on November 5th, 2021, outside the Houses of Parliament and watch as he destroys it. Evey ends up bumping into V as he is fleeing the BTN and she narrowly saves his life, but it is all caught on camera. With no other alternative, V takes Evey to his underground hideout where she slowly begins to understand what V is trying to accomplish. She also learns about his horrific past inside a concentration camp called Larkhill, one set up by the Norsefire party. Meanwhile, lead inspector Eric Finch (Played by Stephen Rae) is hot on V trail but he ends up discovering more than he bargained for.

Certainly not the easiest film to briefly sum up due to the fact that there are tons of moving parts that allow the story to keep chugging along, V for Vendetta certainly is a rich and hearty thriller that more than satisfies. The first forty minutes of the film are absolutely glorious and flawless, with plenty of mind-bending action sequences and slow mounting suspense to keep you glued to your seat. The infiltration of the BTN by V seems like something Christopher Nolan would have concocted in one of his Batman films with closed-quarters action that would have been right at home in The Matrix. Then things switch from relentless action into more of a political thriller and character drama. The second half of the film is certainly interesting, especially when we get to hear about the origin of the Norsefire party and how V was molded into a Shakespeare-quoting gentleman who prefers to slay his victims with knives and ideas. It is here that the narrative tries to cram in too much and things begin to get tangled up in its own story. There are so many characters to try to keep track of that the exhaustion carved into lead inspector Finch’s face says it all. Yet when things finally do come together, or at least when we can finally put all the puzzle pieces in place, it does knock you off your feet. In a way, this is a positive because the more times you see V for Vendetta, the more that it chooses to reveal, making it one that you could happily add to your film collection.

Another unusual approach in V for Vendetta is never allowing the audience to get a glimpse of the V’s face. We learn that V was horribly disfigured in a fire and that he also can take quite a bit more punishment than the normal human being, a result of experiments that were conducted on him in Larkhill. V keeps his scarred face hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask and allows his personality to come alive in eloquent and poetic dialogue that pours from the small slit in the mask’s mouth. He is mildly pretentious in the way he quotes Shakespeare, enjoys high art, and swoons over The Count of Monte Cristo, a film he can quote line by line. His underground lair is walled with books as thick as bricks, shrines to individuals who were deemed “unfit” by the Norsefire party (a lesbian woman who was in a cell next to V while he was in Larkhill), and accented with classical tunes that pour forth from his jukebox of 100 songs, none of which V has ever danced to. Weaving has his work cut out for him in selling V to the audience but he does it with human grace. I enjoy the fact that V is meant to represent all of us and I loved the fact that my imagination ran wild with what he looked like. We only ever get a glimpse of his hands, which are red, swollen, and peeling, grotesque but tragic, even more so when Evey sees them and V quickly covers them up so he doesn’t offend her.

Then we have Portman’s Evey, who has to speak in a faux British accent that does come off as fake from time to time but Portman’s character is caught in so much conflict that you barely notice. She is a powerhouse when she has her hair shaved off in one of the film’s more intense moments. She morphs from a conformed member of the Norsefire society into a cold, steely liberator with eyes that are made of fire, perhaps the same flames that baptized V. Her intimate moments with V, the ones where they speak of their pasts and V’s plot are touching, haunting, and hypnotic. Then we have Rae’s Finch, a loyal Norsefire party member who is beginning to question the party he has dedicated himself to. The more he uncovers, the more he begins to see that V is not the enemy. Another standout is John Hurt as Sutler, who is almost always seen on a giant screen that looms over the closest members of his cabinet. There is so much force in his voice when he snarls at those close to him that he needs to remind the people of Great Britain why they need him. Rounding all the main players is Fry is a closeted homosexual who fears his sexual orientation will have him jailed, but that is the least of his worries, and Tim Pigott-Smith as Peter Creedy, the scowling and slimy head of the “Fingerman.”

V for Vendetta has a shattering moment in the middle of the film when it flashes back to tell the story of Valerie (Played by Imogen Poots and Natasha Wightman), a lesbian who was disowned by her family and ultimately arrested by the government and thrown into Larkhill. The scene is fueled by so much raw emotion, anger, frustration, and ache that it still retains its punch every time you see the film. It is the highlight of the convoluted middle section of V for Vendetta, one that shows the true suffering at the hands of evil individuals who lack the right to judge their neighbor. It also acts as the push behind this liberal minded superhero outing. It is a call for tolerance and acceptance of all walks of life, something the far right refuses to do. Despite the longwinded politics of the middle portion of the film (trust me, it covers it all), the last act ties everything up in grand, fiery fashion, complete with a rousing fireworks display. The end battle scene between V and several members of the “Fingerman” is turned up eleven with slow motion spirals of V flying through the air and cutting down those who have caused him so much pain, V’s rage tied up with fluttering ribbons of blood cutting across the action. Yet it is the idea that together we can accomplish anything that will have you on your feet by the time the credits roll. It is the idea of universal freedom that allows V for Vendetta to stand as one of the true triumphs of the superhero genre.

Grade: A-

V for Vendetta is available on Blu-ray and DVD.