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
Just four short months before John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London came ripping into theaters, director Joe Dante released The Howling, a stylish little werewolf horror film with a sleazy side. Lacking the big budget studio backing that Landis enjoyed (An American Werewolf in London was released through Universal Studios), The Howling has earned a respectable cult following over the years. It doesn’t particularly enjoy the mainstream recognition that Landis’ film receives, prowling just under the radar and seeming to relish its cult status. Despite all of this, The Howling is still an immensely enjoyable horror film, and its one that deeply rewards with its semi-veiled winks carefully placed by Mr. Dante. The Howling also enjoys its fair share of blood, sex, and nudity, kicking things off in a sleazy porn theater and ending with a rip roaring showdown between a bunch of pointy-eared werewolves looking to tear sheets of flesh from bone. As if the blood, beasts, and boobs weren’t enough to have horror fans drooling, it’s worth tracking down The Howling for the numerous nods to other horror filmmakers that Dante places throughout his film. You’ll thrill at tips of the hat to two of Hammer’s most famous directors, a handful of Universal Studios directors, and you’ll chuckle at a cameo from the B-movie king himself, Roger Corman. Now how can you argue with all of that?!
The Howling introduces us to Karen White (played by Dee Wallace), a Los Angeles news reporter who has been receiving perverted messages from a serial killer named Eddie Quist (played by Robert Picardo). One evening, Karen agrees to meet Eddie in a sleazy porn theater, but what Eddie doesn’t know is that Karen is working with the police in an attempt to get him off the streets. Before the police can rush in to nab Eddie, Karen catches a glimpse of her stalker’s face, and what she sees seems to frighten her to death. In the midst of all the chaos, Eddie is gunned down by a trigger-happy police officer. Over the course of the next few days, Karen is plagued by horrible nightmares about the encounter, something that deeply concerns her husband, Bill (played by Christopher Stone). At the advice of her therapist, Dr. George Wagner (played by Patrick Macnee), Karen and Bill head off to a secluded town called The Colony. Upon their arrival, Karen and Bill are greeted by a number of locals that all seem to be a bit peculiar. Bill finds himself being seduced by a woman named Marsha (played by Elisabeth Brooks) and they observe the bizarre suicide attempt of an elderly man named Erle (played by John Carradine). Things get even stranger when Karen is awoken in the middle of the night by what sounds like wolves howling. After a wolf-like creature attacks Bill, Karen begins to notice that Bill’s behavior is growing more and more suspicious. To make things worse, Karen’s friends, Terri Fisher (played by Belinda Balaski) and Christopher Halloran (played by Dennis Dugan), discover that Eddie Quist may not be dead after all.
Early on, The Howling resembles a seedy murder mystery—something that would have seemed right at home on 42nd Street. We drift through a sleazy part of Los Angeles, where porn theaters line the street and almost everyone seems like they are up to no good. When the action finally shifts from gritty street fare to woodsy tension, The Howling gets really entertaining. It takes some time for the werewolf action to really kick in, but when it does, it brings some impressive and downright intimidating werewolves with it. These suckers look like they were created by the Devil himself, with their pointed ears, glistening fangs, and towering height. It’s nearly impossible not to find these guys creepy. As if the werewolves weren’t gruesome enough for you, Dante springs a transformation on us that features bubbling skin, bulging eyes, pulsing necks, and bleeding fingernails. It certainly rivals what we saw in An American Werewolf in London, but Dante uses more cuts to mask all the effects, something that Landis wasn’t guilty of. Either way, it is still unbelievably gross and leaves you wondering how the hell they managed to pull that off in 1981.
As far as the performances go, most of the players turn in memorable roles; however, scream queen Dee Wallace really disappoints. Wallace’s Karen is consistently faint, scripted, and almost a bit confused as she squirms over what she saw in the porno theater. When she heads up to The Colony, she gains a bit of strength, but when it comes to her life being threatened, she just backs up against the wall and slightly cringes as a werewolf closes in. She doesn’t even put up much of a fight when she is drug before a several locals just waiting to unleash their inner monsters. She just hangs there until she can be saved. Stone finds a groove as Bill, Karen’s frustrated husband that is slowly being pulled into the arms of another woman. Picardo is sweaty and perverted as Eddie, a serial killer with an even more dreadful secret. He will make your skin crawl as he proclaims to think that Karen has a sexy voice, all while she is screaming bloody murder. Elisabeth Brooks smolders as Marsha, a nymphomaniac that can get vicious in the blink of an eye. Dennis Dugan’s Christopher gets to be the hero of the film, arming himself with some silver bullets to put down the beasts of The Colony once and for all. The appearance of John Carradine as Erle is also a treat, a crazy old coot that is constantly trying to get the attention of those around him.
Considering that The Howling and An American Werewolf in London were released the same year, it’s almost impossible not to compare the two of them. While the films are evenly matched most of the way through, The Howling may come out ahead when it comes to the climax. Where An American Werewolf in London just abruptly ends on a highly emotional note, The Howling is alive with plenty of werewolf action that will have you jumping out of your seat. As if all the silver bullets, exploding cars, burning barns, and snarling werewolves weren’t enough, we are treated to one more surprise before the film can fade to black. When it comes to discussing the rest of The Howling, the film seems to know what horror fans are craving, We are treated to a sex scene that finds both individuals morphing into werewolves, one character digging out a piece of their head to give someone a “piece” of their mind, and there is also a melted face complete with bone and muscle visible (in this department, An American Werewolf in London had them beat). Overall, The Howling is an addictive little werewolf horror movie that tips its hat in inspired and subtle ways to the subgenre. It features some of the coolest look werewolves out there and the climax is a fiery hoot. This is frightfully good fun with a wink.
The Howling is available on Blu-ray and DVD.