The horror movie, in all its multitude of cinematic guises, has offered up many a piece of friendly advice throughout the years. Whether it’s a deranged old man warning a bunch of witless teenagers to skip this year’s camping vacation, an urban legend warning the curious amongst us all to avoid speaking a certain name out loud five times whilst staring into a mirror or a pub full of especially suspicious punters suggesting we all just “stick to the roads” and “keep clear of the moors” as many an important life lesson has been learnt from the silver screen as from our dear and loving parents.
And so, for an overly imaginative teenager of the Nineteen Eighties, it’s understandable that a great deal of curiosity was to be aroused when Angela Lansbury kindly warned us all to “never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle”. Of this tantalising triumvirate of teasers it was the latter that was to remain with me for many years as whilst straying from the path may invariably result in getting lost in the deep, dark forest and eating a windfall apple may lead to unexpected maggots to trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle, however charming, debonair and eloquent he may be, could potentially lead to somewhat unexpected, unwelcome and altogether hirsute company … or, at the very least, Noel Gallagher!
Which brings us, rather neatly, to the hour of the wolf or, to be more specific, the lycanthrope. For it was none other than the legendary Lon Chaney’s performance in George Waggner’s 1941 Universal classic “The Wolfman” that first awoke the cinematic beast in me and made me the ardent fan of the werewolf genre that I am today and whilst I was admittedly more intrigued by the transformation FX and makeup than to the film’s potential subtext I was, nonetheless, fascinated by the very concept that man and beast could, in themselves, be one and the same thing.
Since then, of course, many a director has answered the call of the wild with Terence Fisher’s’ “The Curse Of The Werewolf” (1961), Michael Wadleigh’s “Wolfen” (1981), John Landis’ “An American Werewolf In London” (1981), Joe Dante’s “The Howling” (1981), Mike Nichol’s “Wolf” (1994), John Fawcett’s “Ginger Snaps” (2000) and Neil Marshall’s “Dog Soldiers” (2002) heading up the pack. But it was back in 1984 that perhaps the most imaginative entry to the genre was unleashed upon us when a young Irish filmmaker by the name of Neil Jordan released only his second film to date (this was 8 years before the success of “The Crying Game”) an adaptation of Angela Carter’s 1979 short story “The Company Of Wolves”.
We begin as we mean to go on, in a place betwixt dreams and reality. It’s 26 years before Chris Nolan has audience’s totems spinning with his multi-layered dream themed blockbuster “Inception” and a young girl called Rosaleen lays asleep in bed, her lips caked in gaudy red lipstick stolen from her older sister, Alice, who currently taunts her from outside the bedroom door. As she sleeps the camera slowly takes in the contents of the cluttered room; a white dress hung on the back of the door, a grey haired porcelain doll with wire framed spectacles sat upon a shelf, a creepy looking sailor doll, an old, battered, much-loved teddy bear and, lying on the pillow beside Rosaleen’s head, a copy of My Weekly entitled “The Shattered Dream”.
Then, as a mysterious darkness suddenly falls across the room and a sudden breeze gusts across her slumbering form we pan out of the bedroom window and into a dense, dark forest as a lone wolf howls mournfully in the distance. And almost immediately we’re thrust in the world of Rosaleen’s dreams as we see a young girl, soon to be revealed as Alice, wearing that self same white dress we saw earlier and being chased by a pack of ravenous wolves through this nightmare forest. It’s a wonderfully Gothic opening salvo that introduces us to a twisted, adult, almost Gilliam-esque fairytale world (oh, if the entirety of “The Brothers Grimm” had been this good!) whilst also taking the time to layer in plenty of subtext, metaphor and visual motifs.
For as Alice runs further into the forest so we see the contents of Rosaleen’s bedroom brought to terrifying life; a sinister life sized sailor doll lunges from the shadows, a faithful teddy bear turns aggressively lecherous, an unwelcome vermin inhabits a charming doll’s house and an ominous grandfather clock repeatedly chimes the hour as the minutes count forever backwards. Through all this runs a terrified Alice until, cornered by the wolves, she finally succumbs, raising her hand above her head and screaming in terror. Then, as we return once more to the safety of Rosaleen’s bedroom, we notice that the figure adorning the cover of My Weekly holds that self same terrified pose that her sister did just moments earlier.
At this juncture anybody expecting yet another predictable, run of the mill werewolf tale is going to be either solely disappointed or pleasantly surprised. For what Jordan and Carter have crafted here is as much a werewolf film as a highly intelligent allegory. In much the same way as John Fawcett’s highly enjoyable “Ginger Snaps” utilised the framework of the werewolf genre to explore female sexuality so “The Company Of Wolves” expertly weaves elements of classic fairytales, myths and legends to explore Rosaleen’s tumultuous journey into adulthood, the animal nature of human sexuality and the inevitable loss of her childhood innocence as she begins to discover her deepest, darkest desires. It’s a film so deep in dream symbolism and allegorical subtext as to give Freud palpitations, yet as Rosaleen sleeps her dreams allow the audience to access her unconscious thoughts and desires and suddenly the words “never stray from the path” take on an altogether different meaning …
But for now reality is a fleeting memory as we are plunged headlong into the delightfully enchanting dream world buried deep within Rosaleen’s unconscious mind. Much of the success of such a magical aesthetic is celebrated production designer Anton Furst (Furst would later bring Gotham City to glorious life in Tim Burton’s “Batman” before sadly taking his own life, aged just 47, in 1991) who studied the works of 19th Century French artist Gustave Doré and English landscape artist Samuel Palmer prior to designing the forest sets. The majority of the film was shot on huge sets constructed in Shepperton Studios and though in hindsight the use of such sets is glaringly obvious if anything it adds to the otherworldly air the film so successfully achieves.
For it is in this world, in a quaint little village that Rosaleen lives with her mother and father (played with consummate professionalism by everyone’s favourite decapitee David Warner and Swedish actress Tusse Silberg who play both the modern day parents in the film’s opening moments and their respective dream versions for the remainder of the film) as well as spending a great deal of time with her beloved Grandmother. And it’s ultimately Grandmother herself who provides the most comforting anchor for the majority of the film as well as providing Rosaleen with a guiding hand as she walks the path between child and adult.
And so it is fitting, perhaps, that Grandmother be played by no less than Jessica Fletcher herself, Angela Lansbury, who portrays her as a quintessentially archetypal wise old lady who offers plenty of sage advice and stern warnings to the young girl. It’s around this point that the film takes yet another narrative shift as Granny proceeds to tell Rosaleen the tale of a cursed young groom whose sudden disappearance one full moon leads to an unexpected return years later and an altogether primal transformation. These stories within a story (there are four in total) serve to add yet another layer of enjoyment to the film and, though brief, recall the horror anthology tales of yore. More importantly, however, is the fact that each story offers yet more metaphor, subtext and rumination on such themes as puberty, adult masculinity, basic primal instincts and the act of embracing ones adulthood … not to mention some impressive FX work!
Check back to the site on Thursday for Part Two of my retrospective on The Company of Wolves.