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The Company of Wolves (1984)
A werewolf film like no other, The Company of Wolves is a radical reinterpretation of the story of Little Red Riding Hood through a primarily feminist viewpoint. With it's rich and beautiful symbolism, Neil Jordan's 1984 film is based on a collection of short stories originally written by novelist Angela Carter, who collaborates with Jordan on this film's script. While it is not terribly frightening, this film can make one marvel at its beauty and also think carefully its allegories of leaving childhood behind and embracing maturity.
The Company of Wolves introduces us to the young Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) as she is sleeping in her bed. The film takes place primarily in Rosaleen's dreamscape, which consist of several stories concerning lycanthropy. Her Granny (Angela Lansbury), through her cleverly spun stories, warns her to beware of wolves, never trust men, and always follow the path through the forest. Rosaleen does not always follow Granny's advice, however, and she encounters many frightening yet appealing characters throughout her dream. The dream's centerpiece is a re-enactment of the classic tale of Little Red Riding Hood. As she dreams, Rosaleen discovers that she is becoming a young woman and begins to understand what that means to her.
Unlike other films that employ dreams, The Company of Wolves actually feels like a dream. Many of the events in the film wouldn't make sense in the waking world but make perfect sense here. The dreams in this film (which, it should be noted, make up about 99 percent of its running time) are not, unlike some of the more unfortunate Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, merely bizarre imagery for their own sake. Rather than merely use dreams as a surrealistic alternate dimensions as many other fantastic films do, the dreams here are carefully thought out sequences that are full of symbolism and meaning. This is a film where a 20th Century Rolls Royce easily drives through a medieval forest, and seems to make perfect sense in doing it.
These dreams skillfully pull us into a nightmare early in the film, as we see Rosaleen's sister running through what at first looks like a dark forest, but soon see that it is populated by large and grotesque versions of the toys that are in Rosaleen's room. We are not only presented with bizarre and frightening imagery, but we also quickly begin to see that Rosaleen is taking a mental trek to adulthood. The imagery is that of a child's fears of wolves and monsters, but they seem to be a representation of how Rosaleen is coping with her own internal changes. She sees wolves that usually (but not always) are symbols of lost innocence and male desire, whereas the "path" that Granny frequently mentions is a symbol for virginity. Granny, and to a lesser extent Rosaleen's parents, are constantly trying to keep her on the path, to keep her from becoming tempted by the fearful yet attractive things in the forest. When she "strays from the path," Rosaleen encounters werewolves and hears stories of how men can often hurt women. She also sees symbols of motherhood, particularly in a scene where Rosaleen picks up two eggs which then hatch in her hand, only to reveal tiny babies made of stone. Near the end, she becomes enchanted with a man who, she finds out, it a werewolf. Her journeys away from the path have taught her, however, not to fear his power but embrace it. She allows herself to become a werewolf, symbolically shedding her childhood skin and becoming a full grown woman. These symbols and images allow us to see how the sleeping Rosaleen's subconscious is working out her maturation and the fears and pleasures that come with growing up. As in a dream, complex questions about one's own self are represented with graphic and peculiar visions.
Jordan uses measured direction to evoke this dream reality. For most of the film, Jordan juxtaposes fairly conventional scenes where has his camera doesn't do much more than follow the actors with scenes that are bizarre and breathtaking. One is the aforementioned scene of Rosaleen's sister's fatal run through the forest. Another is a truly remarkable sequence in which a Rolls-Royce carrying the Devil, with Rosaleen as the chauffeur wearing a blonde wig, rides up through the forest to meet a young man. The young man accepts a potion from the Devil, and then, as hair starts to grow on his chest, vines start to grow on his legs as he screams in terror. This is shot in soft focus and feels like a nightmare within the dream. It is dimly lit, and, even though it is not filmed in slow motion, everyone seems to be moving very slowly and deliberately, as does the camera. The scene ends with the "real" Rosaleen seeing the screaming young man in her mirror. Jordan always keeps us in a vividly real dream (he periodically cuts to brief scenes of Rosaleen asleep in her room), one that is sometimes pleasant, sometimes terrifying.
Production designer Anton Furst aids greatly in the creation of Rosaleen's dream world. The film is shot completely in-studio (except for a very brief scene in the beginning in the "real" world), and it consciously seems artificial. The houses, the church, and the forests are all deliberately exaggerated to accentuate the mysterious nature of Rosaleen's dream experiences. Additionally, the costumes seem to come more from a Brothers Grimm story than 18th Century England. This carefully crafted fairy tale environment is perfect for Rosaleen's mental journey to maturity. Since she starts the film as a child, it makes perfect sense that her unconscious mind would present her with such a childlike environment in which to understand her growth into a woman, and the film's production design greatly enhances this aspect of her journey.
A superb cast brings this exceptional story to life. While nearly everyone shines in the film, two key performances stand out. Sarah Patterson is perfect as Rosaleen. She employs a truly innocent manner of speaking and uses her wide eyes to show us Rosaleen's initial naive and childlike state. As the film progresses, however, she subtly becomes more adult in her manner, joking almost dismissively with a young boy who likes her, and behaving very calmly and maturely in her encounter with the final wolf. Her growing wise looks and brave manner clearly demonstrate her mental journey. She is indispensable to the film.
Angela Lansbury brings a humorous, grumpy feeling to her Mother Goose like character. She behaves as if she has all of the knowledge of the world in her, although in the end it is evident that she does not know as much as she thinks she does. At times she can seem like an old busybody, offering some rather unfortunate remarks about the village priest to Rosaleen in a cantankerous voice loud enough that the nearby priest can hear her. At other times she shows a great deal of love and sweetness to Rosaleen, smiling warmly and speaking kindly to her. Considering that she is playing an almost completely stereotyped character, it is to Lansbury's credit that we come to see has as a fully fleshed out character that we can care about, helping to ground the fairy tale-like story in reality.
For all of its magnificent imagery and rich symbolism, The Company of Wolves does have its flaws. It tends to use wolves to symbolize just about everything from male lust to female power over males. At one point wolves embody all the treachery and hurt that men can inflict upon women. This is best seen in an early sequence where a young bride (Kathryn Pogson) marries a stranger, played by Neil Jordan regular Stephen Rea. He quickly abandons his wife, only to come back years later and terrorize her after she has remarried. While the wolf imagery here is extremely violent and frightening, in another scene we see a poor woman (Dawn Archibald) who was used and discarded by a nobleman (Richard Morant) turn him and his wedding party into wolves that she dominates for the rest of her days. Here, rather than a symbol of evil, the wolves are seen as the consequences of an evil deed. It weakens the film to have the wolf be such a plastic symbol.
Another major weakness is the unrealistic animatronic work used in the transformations. Stephen Rea's metamorphosis is almost laughable; the wolf that begins to emerge from his body is so obviously an inexpensive model that it makes one smirk at the other characters who are cringing in fear. When Rosaleen encounters the final werewolf, played by Micha Bergese, the transformation scene is somewhat better, but it still looks more like cheap effects than a man becoming a wolf, severely damaging our ability to suspend our disbelief. These poor effects threaten to pull us out of the dream and back into a sense of watching cheaply done effect.
Despite these minor flaws, The Company of Wolves is an outstanding and unique portrayal of a young woman's journey to maturity. It is an extremely clever retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood;" one that explores in detail the many layers of symbolism contained in that tale. It is not frightening in a conventional horror film sense, but that is not its goal. It rather wants to take us along with Rosaleen on her mental journey from being a child to becoming a woman, and by the end, when we see wolves smashing through her window and destroying her childhood toys, the film succeeds superbly.
This review is part of our Shocktober Classics 2009: Staff Screams event.