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The Company of Wolves (1984)

“You pay too much attention to your Granny. She knows a lot, but she doesn’t know everything; and if there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women, too....”

Director: Neil Jordan

Starring: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Tusse Silberg, Micha Bergese, Graham Crowden, Stephen Rea, Kathryn Pogson, Dawn Archibald, Shane Johnstone, Danielle Dax

Screenplay: Michael de Guzman

Synopsis:  In a house in the country a girl named Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) lies sleeping. Her sister, Alice (Georgia Slowe), sent to wake her up, finds her bedroom door locked, and through it hisses venomously that Rosaleen is a pest, pest, pest. Rosaleen sleeps on, unheeding, tossing fitfully. She dreams of another time, another place....and of another Alice, who runs through a wood full of strange, threatening creatures – and of wolves. The wolf-pack pursues her, corners her. She screams in terror as they close in on her....and in her sleep, Rosaleen smiles and dreams on.... As Alice lies in her coffin, Rosaleen’s mother (Tusse Silberg) compels her to kiss her dead sister goodbye. After the funeral, as Rosaleen is comforted by her father (David Warner), her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) offers to take the girl to her house for the night. The two set out through the wood, and Granny tells Rosaleen that she will always be safe as long as she never strays from the path; but that if she ever does, she will be lost forever....like Alice. She goes on to give Rosaleen two more pieces of advice: never eat a windfall apple, and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet. That night, Granny explains that a wolf may be more than it seems; that while most wolves are hairy on the outside, some are hairy on the inside – and of these Rosaleen must particularly beware. Granny tells a story of a young woman (Kathryn Pogson) who married a stranger to her village, a travelling man (Stephen Rea), a man whose eyebrows met, who vanished on their wedding night, only to return just as mysteriously years later to find his wife re-married and a mother. Abusing the woman as a whore, the man began to transform, tearing away his face to reveal what lay beneath.... As Rosaleen squirms in discomfort, Granny warns her that men are all the same, and that they will all show the beast within eventually. Back at home with her parents, Rosaleen wakes one night and catches a glimpse of her parents making love. Rosaleen asks her mother if her father ever hurts her. Her mother warns her not to pay too much attention to her grandmother’s stories. A village boy (Shane Johnstone) invites Rosaleen to walk in the woods with him. Granny shouts after them a warning not to stray from the path. As soon as they are out of sight of the village, the boy forces a kiss on Rosaleen. She breaks away from him, leaving the path and running deep into the woods. The boy searches for her frantically, but finds instead the bloody carcass of a cow. He runs back to the village, desperately crying, “Wolf!” The village men trap and kill the marauding animal. Rosaleen’s father cuts off its paw for a trophy, but by the time he reaches home he is carrying a hand.... Wearing the long red cape that her grandmother has knitted for her, Rosaleen sets out through the woods for Granny’s house, carrying a basket of provisions. On the way she encounters a stranger, a Huntsman (Micha Bergese), a man whose eyebrows meet. Luring Rosaleen from the path, the man shares the provisions with her, then wagers her a kiss that he can get to her grandmother’s house before she does....

Comments:  With vast improvements in special effects technology during the late seventies and early eighties came a rush of visually orientated genre movies. Not surprisingly, the werewolf film experienced a resurgence at this time, and within a few brief years were released The Howling, An American Werewolf In London, Wolfen....and The Company Of Wolves, which in actuality is not really a werewolf film at all. It is usually advertised as a horror movie, but it is not really that, either. It inhabits a dream world without being entirely a dream; and although it climaxes in a re-enactment of one of the world’s best-known fairy-tales, its underlying meaning is as far as it could possibly be from that of the allegory from which it takes its plot.

If, indeed, this film could be said to have a plot.

In fact – as you’ve probably gathered – it is a great deal easier to say what The Company Of Wolves is not than what it is. This strange offering from Neil Jordan, his second work as a director and his first foray into the world of the supernatural, is a film that invites a hail of adjectives; even a stoning of adjectives: symbolic, dream-like, poetic, haunting, maddening, arty, pretentious.... It is a film that tends to provoke an extremity of reaction in the viewer, the kind that people can love or hate for precisely the same reasons. Some are put off by its lack of structure, its stubborn refusal to tell a linear story or come to a conventional conclusion; others, by its overt “studio set” look and feel – although the latter is a conscious and critical artistic choice. The world within the film is very deliberately artificial, a Freudian amusement park where a village well is a conduit to the underworld and boa constrictors populate English forests; forests in which phallic mushrooms soar wherever one “strays from the path”, and where childhood toys become deadly weapons in the ultimate settling of sibling rivalries. The imagery presented is often both gorgeous and startling – and occasionally, completely inexplicable – while the mise-en-scène as a whole simply drips with symbolism. This is as much the case outside Rosaleen’s dream as within it; and indeed, for some viewers, the most difficult part of The Company Of Wolves to take may not be the beautiful illogic of Rosaleen’s fantasy world, but the short “real world” sequence that opens the film. As Rosaleen tosses in an uneasy sleep, the camera moves about her over-cluttered bedroom, occasionally resting on what will soon become some very familiar objects, all of them presented in a manner so very pregnant with meaning that it can be a little off-putting, even risible. (It’s also difficult to maintain a suitably receptive frame of mind when, in the midst of all this “meaningfulness”, you’re suddenly confronted by what looks distinctly like a cameo appearance by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!) By the end of the film, however, all these images do “make sense” – even if it is on the subconscious level, rather than the rational. The Company Of Wolves may not tell its story in the common manner, but it nevertheless has plenty to say; and with the combined sensibilities of Angela Carter and Neil Jordan at work, its message is as far from that of most other horror films as The Company Of Wolves is from your average piece of studio film-making.

 

The difference between this film and its more conventional brethren is not, however, immediately apparent. Early on in The Company Of Wolves, Granny seems to be the voice of the film; a dispiriting one, with her endless tales of the dangers of sex; of powerless, victimised women; and of men who, while “sweet enough, until they’ve had their way”, will inevitably show the beast within. The first intimation of the film’s real intention comes via yet another story from Granny, this one concerning the predestined fate of the bastard children of priests; a story delivered in, of all places, the local churchyard, where Granny and Rosaleen are visiting Alice’s grave. (This tale is an intriguing interlude, featuring an anachronistic white limousine chauffeured by a coolly blonde version of Rosaleen, inside which rides the Devil himself, seen thoughtfully contemplating a baby’s skull. And as the Devil--- Well, you’ll just have to watch and find out, won’t you?) Granny feels herself secure in delivering this particular cautionary tale because the local priest, who happens to be up a ladder nearby pruning a tree, is “as deaf as a post”. This observation, on top of her story, earns Granny an incensed look, a small branch dropped deliberately on her head, and a few home truths: “Don’t make so much clamour in the garden of God’s house – you irreverent old woman!” Significantly, this is the last of the stories told by Granny. Beyond this point Rosaleen assumes the role of story-teller; and as she begins to find her voice, so too does The Company Of Wolves.

The US backers of The Company Of Wolves, presented with a werewolf film that wasn’t one – with, in fact, a God-forbid art film – forced Neil Jordan to insert two effects-driven man-to-wolf transformation scenes, one early on featuring Stephen Rea, the other towards the end with Micha Bergese. The former is a bloody affair, all ripped-away skin and straining tendons; the latter features the often-reproduced image of a set of wolf’s jaws jutting from the mouth of the man; and while arresting enough in their own right, both are jarringly out of place in this film. The only transformation sequence that was intended to be there is as different in tone and execution from the other two as it well could be; and is, fittingly, The Company Of Wolves’s most famous set-piece. Rosaleen’s first effort as story-teller is the tale of a village girl done “a terrible wrong” by “the son of the Big House”, and of her revenge. (The “Big House” that we see, by the way, is unmistakably that inhabited by Rosaleen and her family in the real world, a house that has no son.) The girl invades the wedding celebrations of her high-born seducer, reducing the gathering to an embarrassed silence. One hand resting on her swollen belly, the girl regards the be-wigged and powdered assembly with limitless contempt. “The wolves in the forest are more decent,” she spits at last, and casts a scorching glance at a mirror. It promptly cracks; and as the reflection of the wedding party blurs and shatters, the guests themselves begin to transform.... Clawed feet rip through shoes; mouths become fanged jaws; and, in one unforgettable moment, a woman rips open her bodice to reveal a pair of hair-covered breasts. The chaotic scene ends with the former members of the gentry bolting on all-fours into the woods, as their orchestra plays on unperturbed, and grinning footman, having given the triumphant girl an appreciative round of applause, begin guzzling the abandoned wedding champagne.

Rosaleen’s mother, the sole auditor of this tale, is understandably taken aback, demanding to know where on earth she could have learned such a story. Rosaleen insists that it is one of Granny’s, but this we take leave to doubt. There may be wronged girls aplenty in Granny’s tales, but none, we feel, who achieve such a thorough and satisfying revenge, let alone who go on to lead the kind of autonomous existence in which we last see our wronged girl, perched high in a tree top with her baby, laughing exultantly as her lupine victims serenade her with their howls. This conclusion to the tale leaves Rosaleen’s mother even more bewildered: what pleasure could there be, she wonders, in listening to the howling of wolves?

“The pleasure would come,” replies Rosaleen slowly, “in knowing the power that she had....”

And with this, the key-note of the film is struck. Many horror films are about sex, of course, whatever else they might be overtly “about”, and in this The Company Of Wolves is no different. Where it separates itself from its fellows is not in its subject matter, but in its attitude. As already intimated, much of what this film has to say is conveyed in strictly visual terms. Rosaleen’s dream plays out within a small village at the edge of the forest; its palette is predominantly of earth tones, greens and browns and greys occasionally disrupted by a startling splash of red. Red is, of course, the colour of the cape that Rosaleen dons before setting out through the forest to her grandmother’s house. It is also that of the roses that grow in abundance outside that house, roses used to mark Alice’s grave. It is the colour of Rosaleen’s lips, provocatively painted both in the real world and in her dream, and of the Huntsman’s lips, too....except that his are dyed with blood, as is the torn body of the dead cow, and the muzzle of the wolf responsible for its killing.

There is nothing particularly subtle about this use of red, nor much doubt about what it is meant to signify – except that it means, perhaps, a little more than it generally does. Here the colour is not just symbolic, as it commonly is, of The Big Two, sex and death, but of their black sheep cousin, the one that people generally prefer not to talk about: menstruation. At the beginning of the film, the real Rosaleen is confined to her bed with an illness fleetingly referred to as “tummy ache”. Menstrual problems, possibly a first period, are certainly inferred. Rosaleen’s dream of physical transformation is being driven by her own.

(Every now and then, when you read a lot of film criticism, you stumble over a phrase that makes you shake your head and mutter, damn, I wish I’d said that! Such was the case for me with regard to The Company Of Wolves, which British critic Kim Newman once marvellously summed up as a work of menstrual pretension.)

Although the colour red is the film’s predominant signifier, the full moon – simultaneously the heart of the myth of the werewolf, and in its monthly waxing and waning representative of the female cycle – also achieves iconic status here. (Astonishing to think that it took until Ginger Snaps for someone to foreground the lurking femininity of the werewolf mythos.) At the climax of the film, indeed, these two distinct symbols merge into one: a glimpse of the moon at a critical moment shows it glowing red, right before it transforms itself into a watchful eye: the eye of the man who may turn out to be Rosaleen’s lover – or her seducer – or her killer – as he waits for her at her grandmother’s cottage.... The Company Of Wolves is, ultimately, the story of a girl’s sexual awakening – although not, I hasten to stress, in the usual coarse “erotic thriller” sense of that expression. It is about a young girl becoming a young woman; her growing consciousness of her own sexuality, and that of others; and her attempt to make a place for herself in the adult world. At first we fear for Rosaleen. Under Granny’s crude tutelage, encouraged to see only the worst in everyone, men in particular, she seems destined for tragedy, like her sister before her. It is a relief when she assumes the role of the film’s narrator, and we realise that in spite of her youth, there is an alert and inquiring intelligence in the girl that allows her to recognise the complexity of her world and of the people in it – including herself. While Granny’s stories cast women as eternal victims, Rosaleen’s see them finding their own channels of power. Granny’s posit transformation – that is, becoming sexual – as a horror and a threat; Rosaleen’s, as a natural part of life, even if not always a happy one. To Granny, straying from the path can only end in disaster and death; to Rosaleen, to stray is not just a temptation, but perhaps....an inevitability; even a necessity.

In all of this, Rosaleen, although inhabiting a fairy-tale world, is a far cry from the heroines – “heroine” being a courtesy term, of course – of most actual fairy-tales. Events happen around, things are done to, these passive creations, but they themselves do not change, do not grow, do not determine their own fates. But then, Rosaleen has something that gives her a distinct advantage over most of her story-book sisters – namely, parents. Not the usual kind, a spineless, amoral father and an actively evil step-mother (the saintly real mother being safely under the ground, where she can’t be held accountable), but a caring, watchful father and a level-headed, attentive, loving mother. Rosaleen tries at first to fit her father and mother into the grim paradigm of her grandmother’s allegories. Having caught sight of her parents making love, the act a healing of emotional wounds following the funeral of their eldest daughter, Rosaleen attempts to cast her mother as her father’s helpless victim – but her mother is having none of that, thank you. “If there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women,” she tells Rosaleen, adding a tart warning about paying too much heed to Granny’s stories. (It’s wonderful, really, given that the matter is never even alluded to, far less spelled out, how obvious it is that Granny is Rosaleen’s paternal grandmother!) With her mother’s rationality forming a counterpoint to her grandmother’s superstition, Rosaleen must finally choose her own path....or rather, must choose whether to stay on the existing path....or whether to “stray”. The concluding section of The Company Of Wolves gives us what we have been waiting for since the first mention of that red cape: a re-enactment of the story of Little Red Riding-Hood, as Rosaleen dons her cape, collects a basket of provisions, and sets out through the forest – on the path, of course – to her grandmother’s house. And on the way, she meets a stranger: a man whose eyebrows meet....

While re-enactment will rapidly become deconstruction, there are nevertheless certain aspects of its fairy-tale roots that The Company Of Wolves chooses to retain, such as the fact that it is populated by constructs rather than characters. Only Rosaleen and – briefly – Alice are permitted the dignity of names. Everyone else is an archetype: “Mother”, “Father”, “Grandmother”, “Priest”. Then there is the lad who instigates a clumsy pursuit of Rosaleen, and who is billed only as “Amorous Boy”....although as it turns out, the key word in that moniker is not amorous, but boy. He is first seen playing tag with the village children, and this initial appearance is in truth his defining moment. His awkward advances towards Rosaleen are looked upon indulgently by the villagers, as perhaps the beginning of a genuine courtship; but by the time the Boy has begun to take an interest in Rosaleen, she is already beyond him. The inexpert kiss that he steals from her is enough to turn her eyes in a different, and perhaps dangerous, direction.

In the Huntsman, we have both our final archetype and one of the major divergences of The Company Of Wolves from its source. In the original story of Red Riding-Hood, the male psyche is divided into two sharply opposed aspects, in the forms of the saintly huntsman and the savage wolf. Here, the two personas are merged into one, presenting Rosaleen with the living embodiment of her Granny’s warnings, the mysterious stranger full of attractive possibilities, who yet is “hairy on the inside”. She is enthralled and frightened all at once. She knows that he is a liar; she knows that he is not what he seems; yet she makes little protest as the Huntsman relieves her of the knife that she carries to protect herself, or when he offers her his arm to lead her – just a little way....

“What have you done with my granddaughter?” Granny will demand upon laying eyes on the Huntsman, recognising him instantly for what he is. “Nothing she didn’t want,” comes the obvious retort, except that in this case it is literally true. When the Huntsman asks Rosaleen if she’s sorry that the two of them have met in this way, she does not pretend to misunderstand him, replying frankly, “No – they’re clowns, the village boys.” The two of them continue to fence verbally, until Rosaleen unwisely repeats some of Granny’s warnings. The Huntsman reacts in mock outrage, exclaiming that for believing in superstitions – in old wives’ tales – in werewolves – Rosaleen must be.... Kissed, Rosaleen thinks. Punished, says the Huntsman, laughing at her. Rosaleen gets her unspoken wish, however, when the Huntsman insists that he can get to her grandmother’s house by going through the forest before she does by staying on the path – and wagers her a kiss on the outcome. 

By the way--- I hope I haven’t frightened anyone away from this film with all my talk of symbolism and metaphor and meaning. The Company Of Wolves may be a serious work, but it is not without a certain dry sense of humour. Gicen the context, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a sexual edge to much of this humour; what is just a little alarming, given her apparent age, is that most of it centres upon Rosaleen. (Rosaleen’s “real” age is never revealed; her dream self, aptly, seems sometimes just a girl, sometimes a young woman. Sarah Patterson herself was only fourteen when the film, her debut, was shot, and her performance is one of astonishing assurance.) “I have got a remarkable object in my pocket,” observes the Huntsman airily, by way of a conversation-starter. “In your pocket, you say?” exclaims Rosaleen, leaning forward eagerly. You sense a certain disappointment when the “remarkable object” turns out to be a compass. Later, Rosaleen demands to know whether it was true what her Granny said, that “creatures like him” are only men when they are dressed as men. The Huntsman obliges her by stripping off his shirt. Rosaleen gives his bare torso and his muscular arms a long, thoughtful look before observing that, well, after all, he did win his wager....

But before that kiss can be given and taken, we must have the showdown between Granny and the Huntsman; between Granny and the Wolf. Confronted by the personification of all her most dire warnings, Granny tries first to ward him off by flourishing her bible; then, when symbolism fails, she attacks him directly with a poker. This act of defiance is destined to be Granny’s last, however, as--- Well, let’s just say that in the end, Granny turns out to be just as hollow as most of the advice she has been dispensing.

By the time Rosaleen reaches the cottage, there is no sign of her grandmother. There is only the stranger, he of the big eyes....the big arms....the big teeth.... We all know how this story is supposed to end, of course, but here, having toyed with the notion long enough, The Company Of Wolves finally seizes its source material by the throat, shakes it violently, and then drops it on its head. Earlier, as the family drove away from Alice’s funeral, Granny shook her head sadly, reflecting upon the tragic fate of Alice, all alone in the woods “with no-one there to save her.” “Why couldn’t she save herself?” demands the pragmatic Rosaleen, only to be dismissed with, “You don’t know anything – you’re just a child!” But in fact, Rosaleen knows a lot; a great deal more, as it turns out, than Granny did. The Red Riding-Hood we are all familiar with plays no real part in her own story: she is just as passive as a victim as she eventually is when rescued. Rosaleen, placed in the same situation, does not wait to saved: she possesses herself of the Huntsman’s gun, holding him at bay with it – much to his astonished indignation – while she decides her own fate. Rosaleen’s surrender, if and when it comes, will be upon her own terms.

The last of the film’s stories is interpolated here. It is a sequence of haunting beauty, the tale of a she-wolf that one night came into our world from “the world below. She meant no harm to anyone,” narrates Rosaleen, “but someone meant harm to her....” And the inoffensive she-wolf – like the Huntsman himself, when he pushes Rosaleen too far – ends up with a bullet in her. The injured animal struggles on into the local churchyard. The priest finds her there, by that time transformed into a mute, weeping, naked girl, and he gently tends her wound. The ground upon which they meet, the man of God and the creature from the underworld, is explicitly declared to be consecrated; but this holds no terror for this child of the night. Why should it? There is no evil in her. She is, after all, “only a girl – who had strayed from the path....”

“What should I do with this?” Rosaleen asks the Huntsman, crushing her red cape in her hands. Red has symbolised much throughout the film, and here it clearly stands for Rosaleen’s virginity. The Huntsman’s suggestion is that she throws it into the fire – where, by the way, he earlier disposed of the little that remained of Granny. “You won’t be needing it again,” he murmurs, and Rosaleen complies willingly enough. And having first distanced itself from its overt source, The Company Of Wolves here distances itself also from the majority of horror films, many of which are, at heart, thoroughly reactionary. There is not the most remote hint of criticism of Rosaleen anywhere in The Company Of Wolves for her interest in sexual matters, nor for the choice she ultimately makes. Yes, the film argues, sex can be scary; yes, it can be dangerous. What it is not, however, is in any way inherently evil; and nor is the male-female dynamic a simplistic one of hunter and prey, victimiser and victim. Here, it is the girl who wounds, and the wolf who weeps. When the villagers, led by Rosaleen’s parents and the Amorous Boy, arrive at Granny’s cottage, they find not one wolf, but two – the second wearing the cross that Rosaleen’s mother had earlier placed about her daughter’s neck. Instinctively, Rosaleen’s father raises his gun – and not just, we feel, because he sees “wolves”. But Rosaleen’s mother, with a deeper instinct still, deflects his arm and the shot; and the wolves plunge deep into the forest, far from the path, as in the end they inevitably must. The two worlds of the film then merge, as the wolf-pack tears its way into the house where the real Rosaleen lies sleeping still, destroying in the process the last symbols of her childhood. And although Rosaleen cries out in terror, we have no doubt that the destruction is a necessary, a positive thing. The final remarkable aspect of The Company Of Wolves is that it has the nerve to suggest that “childhood” is, in its way, as much a myth as the werewolf; that the conventions we accept, the platitudes we mouth about it, are that and no more; that instead of being an untouched golden time whose passing must be regarded with perpetual regret, childhood might instead just be something to be gotten through, gotten over, rather like the measles; and conversely, that leaving childish things behind and becoming a part of the adult world is perhaps the greatest adventure of all.

Want a second opinion of The Company Of Wolves? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours And Counting.

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