The Company of Wolves is one of only two Angela Carter stories to make it to the big screen so far (which is a shame, since so much of her work is wonderful and eminently filmable). Wolves is a horror movie in the same sense that Legend and Labyrinth are — which is to say, not at all.
Which is why this movie failed at U.S. box offices when it was released in 1984. The American distributors didn’t know what to do with a fairy tale movie that dealt with werewolves and adult sexual themes. So, they tried to market it as a horror movie, and those going in expecting something like The Howling or An American Werewolf in London were bound to be disappointed.
In fact, the only really gory scenes in the movie are the two where Stephen Rea and Micha Bergese turn from men into wolves — and these were added post-production at the U.S. studio’s demand. Director Neil Jordan never intended them to be in there. And while the animatronics and makeup work is impressive in those two sequences, they really don’t seem to “fit” with the rest of the film. When you watch them, you’ll see reaction shots from the other characters, but they aren’t involved in the sequences at all.
Without these two added-in scenes, there’d be nothing about Wolves to call it anything but what it is: an exploration and deconstruction of several fairy tales in light of the werewolf myth.
At its core is a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”, but it also alludes to tales written by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perault such as “The Constant Tin Soldier”, “Hansel and Gretel”, and “Deerskin”. The movie also contains elements of other Angela Carter stories from the short story collection In The Bloody Chamber, where her story “The Company of Wolves” was originally published. The collection is out of print, but all those stories can be found in a recent Carter collection called Burning Your Boats.
The movie contains some absolutely wonderful sets and visuals; everything has a very neat fairy-tale feel to it.
The frame of the movie is an adolescent girl’s dream; in it, her annoying sister is first eaten by wolves, and then the girl herself becomes a heroine in a fairy tale populated by flesh-and-blood incarnations of the toys and figurines scattered throughout her bedroom. The dreamlike world of Wolves is set in a place out of time where the rich wear the powdered wigs and sumptuous pre-Revolutionary dress of the 1700s, but they also drive expensive 1930s-era motorcars (those with sharp eyes will spot Terence Stamp in an uncredited role as The Devil in the back of a white Rolls Royce).
My favorite scene in Wolves is perhaps its most famous scene. In it, a rich wedding party is taking place in a tent on palatial grounds. A young nobleman has just married. A red-haired pregnant commoner comes into the tent to accuse the young man as the one who impregnated and abandoned her. “Wolves are more decent than you,” she tells them all, and in the reflection of a cracked mirror she watches them all change into wolves and flee into the dark woods. Later, she forces the wolves to serenade her and her baby. The lyncanthropic change here has an entirely different feel than the gory changes of Rea and Bergese.
The Company of Wolves has clearly had an effect on other filmmakers. I saw its influence throughout Brotherhood of the Wolf, but I also saw a subtler influence in films such as The Secret of Roan Innish.
In short, I loved this movie, where Granny is a wicked, bloodless creature, and the Big Bad Wolf and the heroic Huntsman are one in the same. It came out on DVD a few years ago, and should be an excellent addition to any fantasy movie fan’s collection.
Running Time: 95 minutes
Director: Neil Jordan
Writer: Angela Carter
Music: George Fenton
Cinematography: Bryan Loftus
Sarah Patterson: Rosaleen
Angela Lansbury: Granny
Micha Bergese: The Huntsman
David Warner: Father
Tusse Silberg: Mother
Stephen Rea: Young Groom
Kathryn Pogson: Young Bride
Graham Crowden: Old Priest
Georgia Slowe: Alice (Rosanleen’s sister, who is killed by wolves)
Brian Glover: Amorous Boy’s father
Susan Porrett: Amorous Boy’s mother
Shane Johnstone: Amorous Boy
Dawn Archibald: Witch Woman
Richard Morant: Wealthy Groom
Danielle Dax: Wolf Girl
Terence Stamp: The Devil
This was originally published in the Spring 2004 issue of Full Unit Hookup.