Werewolf movies have never reached the popularity of vampire films – we probably have ten Dracula movies for every werewolf one – but for me the curse of lycanthropy has always been a more interesting idea than that of vampirism, as the werewolf is an intrinsically more tragic figure, not to mention that visually speaking 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 it does not follow the narrative conventions of most Hollywood films, and is more a true phantasmagoria of images centring on budding sexuality and the dangers inside us all.
The movie is bookended with a modern section where we first meet 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.
The forests are Gustave Doré inspired nightmare, where the poor girl comes across a dollhouse and grandfather clock infested in rats, she runs by a giant moss-enshrouded pipe organ, but then the surrealism reaches its peak when a pack of glowing-eyed wolves begin to chase her as she flees for her life, but there is no escape.
Young Rosaleen smiles in her sleep – she sure must have serious issues with her sister – and as sleeps the dream shifts to the main “meat” of the story. It’s here in this dream world we find a small fairy-tale village, one right out of the tales of the Brothers Grimm, 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.” It’s at this point where the film’s 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, one that does not go as planned. The groom (Stephen Rea) leaves his bride to answer “The Call of Nature” but when does not return, and the house is soon surrounded by wolves, the groom is assumed to have been eaten by wolves. The Bride (Kathryn Pogson) had apparently failed to get the “eyebrows meet in the middle” warning as she thought that aspect of her new hubby was charming and thus his being eaten by wolves was the obvious assumption. Later she remarries and has three children with her new husband, but while he is away hunting her first husband returns, and he 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. The wolf’s head lands in a bucket of milk but when it bobs back to the surface it has turned back to its human aspect. The Company of Wolves uses a couple of different methods for depicting a werewolf transformation, and this one, where the skin is brutally peeled off, before bending and stretching into a wolf shape, is truly horrifying.
Grannie’s second story is of a young man who encounters a Rolls Royce in the heart of this medieval fairy tale, which is a sure sign that you’ve strayed off the path. The car’s beautiful blonde chauffeur (Sarah Patterson now in a blonde wig) beckons him over and he meets with The Devil (Terence Stamp), who then 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 and somehow made his wishes known to darker ears. 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, this woman turns up at said nobleman’s wedding looking quite pregnant, and her response to being passed over for another woman is to magically transforms the entire wedding party into wolves. Well, she doesn’t transform the servants because though she may be a powerful witch but that doesn’t mean she’s a bitch. The story ends with the witch living in the woods with her babe, its cradle swung by a bough, and 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 had climbed up from the underworld through the village’s well, but she had no ill intent towards the people of this hamlet, yet she was still shot by a villager for the crime of being a wolf. She reveals her human form to the local priest who, not caring 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, there’s a local boy (Shane Johnstone) who has amorous feelings toward her, and he repeatedly invites her for a walk in the woods, but after a little bit of kissing Rosaleen runs off. When the boy tries to find her he stumbles upon the torn-up carcass of a cow, fearing the worst the kid cries “Wolf” and runs home. 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” with Rosaleen wearing the red hooded shawl that her grandmother made for her, setting 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. His intentions towards Rosaleen are quite clear, but hers towards him are a bit greyer.
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, and a brief fight ensues. Still, when she shoots the Huntsman he transforms into a wolf, yet she feels pity for the wounded animal, as she sees that his pack outside has now abandoned him. It’s here where she tells him the story of the She-Wolf while petting and stroking his soft fur. This particular transformation is amazing, with the wolf basically bursting free of the human form.
Eventually, the villagers arrive, having been out and about looking for wolves, but when they are at the Grandmother’s cottage they are greeted by a wolf that bursts out of the cottage window, and it disappears into the wood. Rosaleen’s mother 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, has the rational response to seeing a wolf in Grandmother’s cottage and tries to shoot it. Realizing it’s her daughter the mother knocks her husband’s gun aside and then watches as Wolf/Rosaleen escapes out the window to follow her mate and join the pack.
The pack of wolves race through the dream forest, into the modern world of sleeping Rosaleen, then race up to her bedroom, until she awakes with a scream, as a wolf bursts through her bedroom window.
To say this movie is on the bizarre side would be an understatement, but the gothic dreamlike quality of the film cannot be denied, as it hauntingly pulls the viewer into this surreal world. The wolf transformations are what most viewers of The Company of Wolves will remark on, as they are bloody and uncanny, no lap-dissolve transformations here, instead, we get people tearing off their skin in bloody chunks, or the beasts themselves are seen ripping their way out of their host. They may not be the technological marvel that is the transformation found in An American Werewolf in London, but they are scenes you won’t easily forget. So if you are looking for a bizarre and dark fairy tale, told in a very unconventional fashion, this could be the film for you.
The Company of Wolves (1984)
Movie Rank - 7.5/10
Neil Jordan’s dark retelling of the “Red Riding Hood” story is a beautiful and haunting version of a classic fairy tale, one that surrounds the viewer in it’s dark dreamlike state.