Werewolf movies have never reached the popularity of vampire films but for me the curse of lycanthropy has always been a more interesting idea than vampirism. The werewolf is an intrinsically more tragic figure than the vampire, and visually a man transforming into a ravenous beast certainly beats a guy in an opera cape turning into a bat.
In 1984 Neil Jordan, who funny enough later directed Interview with the Vampire one of my Top Ten Vampire Movies, teamed up with writer Angela Carter to translate her werewolf stories to the big screen. This pairing certainly created one of the more interesting installments in the genre as narratively it does not follow the conventions of most Hollywood films and is more a true phantasmagoria of images centering on budding sexuality and the dangers inside us all.
The movie is bookended with a modern section where a young girl named Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) who, for reasons unspoken, has been hiding in her room for quite some time, much to the consternation of her sister who repeatedly calls Rosaleen a “Pest!” Rosaleen tosses and turns in her bed as a nightmare unfolds; her sister is seen fleeing through a cobweb shrouded forest, stalked and attacked by large versions of the toys in Rosaleen’s bedroom.
She finds a dollhouse and grandfather clock infested in rats, runs by a giant moss enshrouded flute, but then the nightmare reaches its peak when a pack of glowing eyed wolves begin to chase her as she flees for her life. There is no escape.
Young Rosaleen smiles in her sleep, she sure must have serious issues with her sister, as the dream shifts to the main meat of the story. It’s here in this dream world we find a small fairy-tale village where Rosaleen and her parents (David Warner and Tusse Silberg) are standing together at the funeral of their recently killed eldest daughter. Rosaleen is told to go stay with her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) for the night as her mother is too overwrought with grief.
It is from her grandmother that Rosaleen learns such important lessons as, “Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple, and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.” The movie structure becomes almost an anthology as we are treated with several dark tales as told by Grannie and Rosaleen.
The first tale told by Grannie is of a young couple on their wedding night. The groom (Stephen Rea) leaves his bride to answer “The Call of Nature” He does not return and soon the house is surrounded by wolves. The Bride (Kathryn Pogson) apparently had failed to get the “eyebrows meet in the middle” warning as she thought that aspect of her new hubbie was charming and thus she assumes he was eaten by the wolves. Later she remarries and has three children with her new husband, but while he is away her first husband returns and is furious that she has taken up with another man. She tries to fend off his enraged attacks and is horrified to see him tear off his own face and transform into a wolf. Lucky for her the new husband arrives home in just the nick of time and he handily lops the wolf’s head off. It lands in a bucket of milk and turns back to its human aspect.
Grannie’s second story is of a young man who encounters a Rolls Royce in the heart of this medieval fairy tale. The car’s beautiful blonde chauffeur (Sarah Patterson in a blonde wig) beckons him over and he meets with The Devil (Terence Stamp) who gives him a potion and tells him to “Use it wisely. Waste not want not.” The boy rubs the potion into his chest and hair quickly sprouts. So we are guessing the poor lad wasn’t happy with his current stage of puberty. Vines begin to creep up his legs and our last image of him is in Rosaleen’s mirror as he screams in terror.
The third story is told by Rosaleen to her mother and is about a woman who was wronged by a rich nobleman. She turns up at said nobleman’s wedding looking quite pregnant and she magically transforms the entire wedding party into wolves. Well she doesn’t transform the servants because though she may be a powerful sorceress it doesn’t mean she’s a bitch. The story ends with the sorceress in the wood with her babe where the wolves are forced to serenade them each night.
The fourth story is one Rosaleen tells to the Huntsman and it is about a she-wolf that climbed up from the underworld through the village’s well. She has no ill intent but is still shot by a villager for the crime of being a wolf. She reveals her human form to the local priest who, not carrying if she be good or evil, bandages her wound. She then returns to her world via the well.
Now in and amongst these stories we follow Rosaleen as she deals with the trials and tribulations of being a young girl in a fairy tale. A local boy (Shane Johnstone) has amorous feelings towards her and invites her for a walk in the woods. After a little bit of kissing Rosaleen runs off and when the boy tries to find her he stumbles upon the torn up carcass of a cow. The men of the village lay a trap for the wolf but when they slay it the beast transforms back into a man.
The movie then slides right into its version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Wearing her red hooded shawl that her grandmother made for her, Rosaleen sets forth one morning to bring a basket of goodies to her grandmother’s house, but on the way she encounters The Huntsman (Micha Bergese) who is handsome and charming and of course whose eyebrows meet in the middle.
They make a wager that if he can make it to grandmother’s house before she does, with the aid of his wonderful compass, she will have to give him a kiss. The Huntsman arrives first and devours poor dear Grandmother. Or I should say he knocks her head off and it shatters like porcelain.
When Rosaleen arrives to find the Huntsman has beaten her there she also notices the carnage and remains of her dear old grandmother. A brief fight ensues, but when she shoots the Huntsman and he transforms into a wolf she feels pity for the wounded animal as she sees that his pack outside has now abandoned him. She tells him the story of the She-Wolf while petting and stroking his soft fur.
Eventually the villagers arrive and Rosaleen’s mother sees a large wolf burst out of the cottage window, she enters the cottage to find another wolf calmly waiting for her and around its neck she sees Rosaleen’s crucifix. Rosaleen’s father enters, sees the wolf and has the rational response to seeing a wolf in grandmother’s cottage, and tries to shoot it. Realizing it’s her daughter she knock’s her husband’s gun aside and watches as Wolf/Rosaleen escapes out the window to follow her mate and to join the pack.
The pack of wolves’ race through the dream forest, into the modern world of sleeping Rosaleen, race up to her bedroom until she screams awake as a wolf burst through her bedroom window.
To say this movie is on the bizarre side would be an understatement, but the gothic dreamlike quality of it cannot be denied as it hauntingly pulls the viewer in. The wolf transformations are what most people will remark on as they are bloody and uncanny. No lap dissolve transformations here but instead we get people tearing off their skin in bloody chunks or the beasts themselves ripping their way out of their host. They may not be the technological marvel that is the transformation in An American Werewolf in London, but these scenes are ones you won’t easily forget. So if you are looking for a bizarre and dark fairy tale, told in very unconventional fashion, this could be the film for you.