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.