The Company of Wolves (1984)

Toby Frost

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#1
There aren’t many horror films in which Angela Lansbury gets top billing. But then there aren’t many films like Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves full stop: a lush, disturbing, sometimes grisly adaptation of Angela Carter’s grown-up fairy tale from her short story collection The Bloody Chamber. It is essentially a retelling of the story of Red Riding Hood, but with added gore and sexual subtext, interspersed with several related stories told by the characters, most notably Red Riding Hood’s grandmamma.

In a country mansion in the present day, a girl dreams about a fairytale village. In the village, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) is warned by her grandmother (Lansbury) to look out for creatures that change from wolf to man. But it seems that the reality is more complex than that, and when a huntsman arrives, a new life beckons to Rosaleen.

There is a small set of films from the 1980s that are so wacky that I expect Kate Bush to cartwheel through the set at any time: Dune, Brazil (she actually sang on that one), Excalibur and this. I have no idea who was supposed to watch this film: its combination of gore and artiness would seem to cancel most of its audiences out. The lack of a single clear storyline and steadily escalating tension means that it lacks the pacing of a horror movie (although it is quite menacing, partly due to its Freudian subtext). As the framing device at the start and end suggests, it’s more like a hallucination, a set of dreams on the same basic theme.

In fact, what The Company of Wolves reminds me of most is Labyrinth: beautiful set design, dances in ballgowns that take a sinister turn, toys that come alive, dangerous and appealing men, and a heroine whose world is threatened by the onset of adulthood. One scene in particular in Labyrinth, the junkyard where creatures pick through Sarah’s toys, seems very similar to the bedroom in The Company of Wolves. Of course, Labyrinth is much more child-friendly, and its heroine ultimately grows up but keeps her childhood friends while Rosaleen has a very different fate, but the two films weirdly parallel each other.

This probably makes it sound as if The Company of Wolves is an interesting failure. Indeed, some of the acting is a bit wooden and the transformation set-pieces haven’t aged well. The present-day framing devices aren’t really needed. However, I think it works very well on its own terms. Lansbury is great, and the music is very strong, but greatest of all is the set design by Anton Furst, who went on to create Gotham for Tim Burton’s Batman. The Company of Wolves looks fantastic, even when it barely makes sense. It’s like a Grimm’s Tales story come to (bloody) life. Since it lacks a strong story, atmosphere and subtext become all the more important. Ultimately, it’s a strange, rewarding film, but not the easiest to follow by some way.



(Incidentally, it seems to be one of those films that were made almost by mistake. There are several good stories about the filming: my favourite is that the wolves used were only half-tame, and a marksman was kept on set in case they decided to eat the actors).
 

Brian G Turner

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#2
The ending is great - the haunting Mike Oldfield music while that wonderful poem is read aloud:

Little girls, this seems to say,
Never stop upon your way
Never trust a stranger, friend,
No one knows how it will end.
As you're pretty, so be wise,
Wolves may lurk in every guise.
Now as then, tis simple truth,
Sweetest tongue hath sharpest tooth.

Great stuff. :)
 

Toby Frost

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#5
She sang on the soundtrack, but I think the version of "Brazil" she did was cut from the film. That said, the floating damsel that Sam Lowry dreams about reminds me very much of something from one of her videos.

Perhaps I should do Brazil next.
 

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