Genuinely haunting, atmospheric and seductive fantasy: one of the best of its kind.
This film was the earliest ever instance I can remember of being absolutely terrified by something on the TV. Before I delve into that, did you know that on the BFI’s website, you can find out when certain films were screened on television? You didn’t care? Oh well. For those who do, it’s the perfect tool to sharpen those memories of when you caught something on the telly all those years ago. Thanks to the BFI, I can confirm that it was indeed a Thursday night (you’ll have to put the date from the site in web search to identify the actual day of the week) when I unwittingly watched the start of The Company of Wolves, and experienced my first ever moment of on-screen horror. Even though the BFI doesn’t confirm the channel, I am 100% sure it was on Channel Four. What were my family doing, letting me watch an 18-rated horror when I was only six years old? Well, to give them credit, they probably didn’t realise it was an ‘18’. They probably heard it was about Red Riding Hood and figured it was a harmless fairy tale, admittedly one that was being screened at the less than family-friendly time of 9pm. Or maybe they thought I was long overdue for a good fright.
The sequence that I can remember vividly from when I was a boy involved a girl being pursued through a forest by bloodthirsty wolves that eventually devour her. I wasn’t keen on dogs, I wasn’t keen on the dark, I wasn’t keen on screaming, I wasn’t keen on the scariness of forests…the whole thing put together, as well as stuff I don’t remember from the time but what I definitely would have seen like an oversized teddy bear grasping at the girl (that sounds funny but is genuinely quite freaky in the film) was a sensory overload, an actual nightmare laid out on screen. The thing is, the actual sequence is a nightmare. It’s a dream from within the mind of our lead character Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) who goes to sleep in her eerily old-fashioned bedroom in the family’s eerily old-fashioned house and get this, and this is the bit that I never, ever, ever forgot, the bit that terrified me instantly – as she falls asleep, the daytime around her fades into scary moon-lit darkness within seconds. All the security and reassurance of the daytime, gone, just like that. That was far too much for me. How I continued to watch beyond that I have no idea, maybe it was a few more minutes before I could make vocal my horror and by then a girl gets eaten by wolves. Not in detail, mind you – the film refrains from gore at this early part of the film. I’m glad I did bail out then and there, for if I had continued watching, I’d probably still be in therapy.
The Company of Wolves can be handily described as an adult fairytale – it’s certainly not for viewers as young as I was back in 1987, but the current ‘18’ certificate does seem overly harsh. Despite the memorably gruesome transformations and the sexual, if not explicit, overtones, it’s perfect ‘15’ rated material, and since it’s actually about an adolescent girl’s journey into womanhood, rating it any higher than a ‘15’ sounds crazy. It’s a tale of a girl who dreams about herself listening to fairytales and dreaming other dreams. Delving beneath layers of layers of deeper subconscious, it’s like Inception but a version featuring Terence Stamp as the Devil. Actually, it’s nothing like Inception. Sorry about that. The Company of Wolves was co-written between director Neil Jordan and the gifted, late author Angela Carter, the script adapted from some of Carter’s short stories (some of which can be found in the brilliant The Bloody Chamber collection) as well as featuring new material.
One of Carter’s approaches to her fiction was to take myths and fairy tales like Bluebeard, Puss in Boots and Beauty and the Beast and give them modern-thinking, sometimes feminist spins. This film invents the character of Rosaleen, on the cusp of womanhood, and delves into her dreams which see her going to live with her Granny (Angela Lansbury) after her sister is eaten by wolves having strayed from the forest path near her home. Granny warns Rosaleen of the dangers of the forest, of the world beyond the path, of wolves, and of men, who may be the most dangerous beast of them all. Remember these three rules, admittedly not as popular as the ones from Gremlins but just as important:
1) Never eat a windfall apple.
2) Never stray from the path.
3) Never trust a man whose eyebrows meet.
Sage advice that, and Granny proceeds to tell Rosaleen of tales involving brides whose grooms come back to eat them months after disappearing on their wedding night, or what happens when you make a deal with the devil to speed up the journey towards adulthood. Then there’s the story of a poor girl wronged by her rich lover, with delicious vengeance delivered henceforth. Wrapped around these stories are Rosaleen discovering her own impending adulthood, avoiding the clumsy affectations of the local farmer’s boy, further attacks from the wolves, and most importantly, the presence of a handsome huntsman who wagers with Rosaleen that he can get to Granny’s house before she does…
What’s fantastic about this film is that you can mostly enjoy it on face value as a surreal fantasy horror (though some of the wilder imagery is impossible to be taken as anything other than metaphor), or you can also get a kick out of the fairytales being subverted, or you can read it as a metaphor for puberty…I’ve watched this film many, many times and I always find more to discover. If you like this film already and haven’t yet heard the Neil Jordan commentary on the DVD, do so – it’s fascinating. The film seems to be on the side of the wolves – they represent freedom from self-oppression, but at the same time such unshackled sexuality is conveyed as pretty frightening – you only need to watch the liberating/horrifying ending for proof of that. Rosaleen may ‘become’ an adult at the close, but she doesn’t look very happy about it. Or maybe she’s screaming simply because she’s about to get eaten by wolves. That’s the one thing I guess some people might have against it, where the plot turns only make some kind of sense if you view them purely as a metaphor. Then again, even if you don’t wish to work out the meaning behind it all, the sheer dream-logic of what’s on-screen is just as effective. I mean, the first time I watched the film all the way through – I never really got the ending, but it still got to me. That’s the beauty of this film – you can get all kinds of stuff from it.
By the way, when I did get round to watching the whole thing many, many years later – I was still stunned by how much the nightmarish atmosphere matched up with my memories of that opening sequence seen around a decade earlier. Some of it is still pretty frightening – the groom sequence where Stephen Rea literally rips the skin off his face to reveal the wolf underneath still has a real charge to it, despite the primitive animatronics later on in the scene. Amusingly, the bride’s new husband who walks in on the horror is none other than Carson from Downton Abbey. Anton Furst’s set design is densely dark and just like out of a scary bedtime story, aided beautifully by Bryan Loftus’ cinematography. The unforgettable ideas springing forth from Carter and Jordan really make an impression – the boy who dabs the mysterious potion onto his chest given to him by Terence Stamp’s Devil (a brief but delectably evil performance) who grows bodily hair in seconds and is then consumed by the trees, the bourgeois dinner party where all the guests transmogrify into wolves (and still greedily delve into their food), wolves jumping through painting canvases, the moon turning blood red, the most surreal decapitation ever, a wolf’s snout emerging from the mouth of a screaming man…it’s all here. Special praise must also be given to the final story told to us – the remarkable ‘Wolfgirl’ sequence where a female wolf is shot and given mercy by a local priest before returning to the underworld from where she came. This story has nocturnal beauty and sensuality in adbundance, and this is where I must heap adoration on George Fenton’s absolutely stunning music score. His pieces throughout are an inspired melding on near-Medieval instrumentation occasionally blended with 1980’s synths – sometimes gorgeous, sometimes delightfully whimsical, other times pretty scary. Yet on his piece for ‘The Wolfgirl’, he creates probably the most eerily haunting score I have ever heard in a film. Listen to it in the dark and you will leave your room and go somewhere else entirely.
The Company of Wolves is a film you can purely feel, but it is one you can really think about too. Intellectual and sensual, metaphorical and literal, beautiful and scary. It really is a classic.