Neil Jordan is best known recently for his worthy dramas along the lines of Breakfast on Pluto or Michael Collins but the man is quite hard to pin down in terms of a specific favoured genre because looking at his filmography he has made some strange choices.
After the low-budget and gritty Angel in 1982, Jordan went for a bizarre horror cum fairy tale story which was financed by the soon to be defunct Palace Pictures. Based on the short story writing of Angela Carter and co-written by her and Jordan, The Company of Wolves is a strange Chinese box of a movie which just about holds up in these modern times.
Starting in present day (well 1984) we meet a girl (Sara Patterson) who is very much trapped in her own world and spends all day in bed much to her parents and sister’s chagrin. The girl dreams back to a time in the 19th century when she lives in a small village in the forest with her parents and sister. After her sister is savagely murdered by wolves in the forest, her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) tells her tales of Men becoming beasts which are meant as cautionary tales to warn her of the dangers of her blossoming womanhood. As time goes on the girl learns that the dangers her beloved grandmother warns her of are very real and very dangerous and her village is filled with secrets.
From a screenplay structure point of view, the film is sort of a mess. The film is stories trapped within stories within stories that then emerge into reality with no real point to the modern-day framing story. As such the film wastes a good forty-five minutes on stories recounted by dear old granny, which whilst interesting don’t add up to a whole lot. The second half is when things get interesting where the girl meets a local boy and the whole thing starts to resemble a particularly gruesome retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.
The effects work has aged badly, not like the Werewolf effects in An American Werewolf in London which still stand up, here when men transform into wolves they actually rip their own skin off to reveal the beast within. It’s a neat visual idea but when the underneath is a red, fake looking dog the result is more laughter than fear. This could be intentional though because this sequence occurs in one of Granny’s earlier stories and later on when a transformation occurs in the real world (of the story at least) then the effects work is much more convincing and subtle.
Overall The Company of Wolves is still a pleasingly weird little oddity that was probably massively influential. The film has some surreal flourishes and scenes that wouldn’t have been out of place on early 90s MTV or advertising and music videos of the time. The final act is almost identical to the recent Red Riding Hood with Amanda Seyfried and the film shares Tim Burton’s future collaborator in production designer Anton Furst and as a result the film has a Burton-esque look to its sets and a hammer horror feel to the scenes in the forest and village.
The film also has a stunning child performance by 12-year-old Sarah Patterson who seemed primed for big things but then seemingly vanished with barely three screen credits to her name. The thematic subject matter may not be as developed as it should be but Jordan would go on to refine his approach in similar films like the underrated The Butcher Boy and In Dreams as well as Interview with the Vampire.
With the current dark fairy tale fad still going strong, now is a good time to re-discover The Company of Wolves, it’s no classic but feels like an influential and important first step for one of the worlds most respected directors.