“Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple, and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet.”
The Company of Wolves is either a child’s nightmarish fever dream, or a lurid fairy tale about the dark, shiny promise of adulthood. I’ve just finished watching the film for the first time in years, and I’m not honestly sure which it is. Both readings are possible, but I think that each viewer will choose for themselves one over the other.
And why not? Neil Jordan’s visually sumptuous film is less a narrative story than a collection of subconscious thoughts, fairy tale allusions, and Freudian subtext. There is room for interpretation, and the door is open so that you may bring whatever you like with you. It sounds heavy, but it’s all been wound into an experience that plays out exactly like a dream; there may be more or less here than meets the eye, but all that does meet the eye is incredibly pleasing.
I remember a trip to the theater as a child to see Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. On the way in, there was a poster there for this film (the image above). Immediately, I was captivated. There were things I recognized there, like little red riding hood and her basket of goodies. The painted imagery reminded me of the Hildebrandt illustrations I had seen in story books. Most disturbing though, was the image at the center of the picture: the bare-chested man with a wolf’s snout protruding from his mouth. I remember thinking it was an awfully creepy idea; he did not turn from a wolf into a man, but rather the wolf was always inside and now it was slipping right out. As it happens, Jordan’s adaptation of the book by Angela Carter evokes all those same feelings over the course of its running time. It’s a visual companion to Carter’s sexually charged, revisionist fairy tales that bridges the world of childhood wonders and adult passions.
The plot is a simple one. A young girl falls asleep on her bed and has a dream in which she lives in a medieval village and is watched over by a protective granny. Granny shelters her from the more diabolical elements of the world, and warns her of wolves–particularly the ones who look like men and are just as interested in devouring a girl’s purity as they are her flesh. Try as she might, Granny can’t keep the curious and impetuous girl from venturing into the darkness of the wilderness and to the arms of the strange, alluring woodsman. Threaded throughout this tale are numerous smaller ones, all related to the perils that befall those that fail to see the wolves inside of the men.
Imagery is everything in The Company of Wolves. There is a good reason I couldn’t recall many of the plot details or characters in this film. They simply don’t matter. Every story on the screen is a slightly tweaked version of tales we have been listening to all our lives and each character is such a thin archetype that they are barely people at all. Without this investment, we are freed up to simply soak in the odd dreamscapes that the great production designer Anton Furst lays out on screen. Furst is primarily known for designing the 89 Batman film. He died tragically and too early in 1991. I often wonder what we would have seen from him had he had more time. As it stands, I find Company his most magnificent work. George Fenton’s whimsical score is capable of evoking dread and alarm at a moment’s notice; it’s comparable to the later work of Danny Elfman and it complements the imagery here in the same way Danny assisted Furst’s Gotham City in the Burton film.
Neil Jordan really shows himself as a strong and unique director with Wolves. Not all of it works successfully together, but the way in which he takes the cues of classical Old Hollywood children’s films like The Wizard of Oz is nothing short of masterful. He borrows from the old and creates the kind of atmosphere we assume is safe; the film is peppered with beautiful and majestic imagery. At one point the young girl climbs a tree, looks out over the entire village and then happens upon a nest of eggs. Up to this point, it’s a moment as magical as anything one might find in a live action Disney effort. However, what she finds inside those eggs, and what her young male friend discovers on the ground while she is up there, aren’t the things one finds in a Disney film.
Casting Angela Lansbury as the grandmother is a superb choice. Who doesn’t look at Lansbury in the bonnet and glasses and make an instant and significant connection with the kindly grandmother in Little Red Riding Hood? Only Jordan would conceive of a scene where her head smashes like porcelain against a wall. Sarah Patterson as Red proves to be attractive and alluring enough to bring the film’s more sensual and darker elements into play without losing the innocence and childlike curiosity necessary to retain the fairy tale shell. Terrence Stamp is also of note in his brief scene as the devil—who happens to drive an anachronistic car through the medieval woods, looking for souls to ensnare.
Finally, what of the werewolves? They are here in spades. A wedding reception becomes a carnival of teeth, hair and fangs. Stephen Rhea transforms in a style that would make those critters in The Howling envious. The only weakness to the wolves is that once in their true form, they are mostly just german shepherds. It’s so obvious that I imagine it has to be for other than budgetary reasons, but I couldn’t quite figure it. When Red’s mysterious woodsman makes his transformation, he’s a real, full-fledged wolf. Is this one of those stories where most guys are dogs, but if you look hard enough you can find your one, true alpha male?
In fact, Wolves is so convoluted regarding its meaning and intent, that unless it is brutally beating you over the head with an idea (Granny’s character is the blunt instrument used in these attacks) it’s often hard to parse exactly what you are seeing on screen. Alas, such is the hazard of ambitious art pictures. It’s nice that Company of Wolves remembers from time to time that it’s also a b-horror film. I’ll take latex wolf snouts and glowing eyes with my corsets and powdered wigs any day. In short, this Company is primarily a feast for the senses. It may not work as much else, but that’s not the reason I’m recommending it and that won’t be the reason it sticks with you.