Bite Me
Neal Block on The Company of Wolves

Precisely once during Neil Jordan’s sylvan pseudo-fairy-tale-period-piece near-genre film The Company of Wolves, the director throws in a bit of standard monster-movie horror business. It’s attempt to either lend a truly frightening visual aspect to a film whose scares mainly hit you in the bottom of your stomach around two days later, or to compete with a string of other, more standard werewolf films that had been released around the same time in the early eighties. Whatever Jordan’s reasoning, it doesn’t work.

Jordan, who had been a horror writer prior to directing this film (his second), inserts a series of wholly incongruous FX-based werewolf transformation shots into a scene that was doing just fine on atmosphere alone, and the effect is laughably admirable. A man returns to the wife he left on their wedding night, wandering back into the house bedraggled and distraught, years later, to find his bride a remarried mother. His anger turns physical, and his face begins to slowly fall apart in a terrible plastic Dali nightmare that makes Jeff Goldblum’s final transformation in The Fly seem like children’s programming. The apple-red blood and sinew, the stop-motion skin-peel, the jerky facial reconstruction of his transformation into a werewolf all speak to the director trying to hard in a film which otherwise trades in understatement and tends to avoid drawing obvious conclusions for its audience. Upon second viewing, it feels like a studio add-in for a product that maybe was deemed too obtuse for popular viewing. Yet it succeeds in highlighting both the successes and the faults of this highly ambitious and meticulously detailed production, one of the more interesting but least remembered chapters of the early eighties boom in werewolf movies, which included, among lesser titles, An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, and Wolfen.

Deep in the woods, the aforementioned husband, his wife moaning for defloration on the palette bed in the rear of their cabin, suddenly walks out into the garden to urinate, leaving the woman confused and upset. Wolves encircle him in the front of the house; he never returns to finish his newlywed duties, and his wife remains unfulfilled for years. This delaying of pleasure and of womanly transformation is at the heart of Jordan’s film, a parable (really, a lengthy series of short parables) that reimagines Little Red Riding Hood as a tale closer to its grim origins. Based on and clearly drawing its deepest influences from the stories of Angela Carter, whose feminist-horror symbology was an inspired if not completely functional partner to Jordan’s rich visual direction, The Company of Wolves pits its central teenaged character Rosaleen against the dangers of her own burgeoning womanhood, represented here by man/wolves who, according to her grandmother (Angela Lansbury), are “hairy on the inside.”

Rosaleen begins her journey in bed, upstairs in her room at home, her older sister knocking repeatedly on the door (on the other side of which hangs a stark, lily-white dress), while Rosaleen herself is fast asleep and dreaming. Her sister is being chased by wolves, followed through the woods, until she’s caught, leapt upon, ripped apart, devoured. Death dream transposes itself onto Rosaleen’s reality; shortly we’re soaring out of her bedroom window into the darkness beyond it, into the woods. At this point the film becomes a series of bedtime stories, as this is all essentially a dream (but not in that clichéd “it was aaaaall a dreeeaaaam” way). Grandma spins tales, gives warnings, instructs her pubescent charge to take note of her surroundings, to never stray from the path, and to be wary of men whose eyebrows meet (in lycanthropic lore, a sure sign of a werewolf). With this advice, which Rosaleen both adheres to and ignores, the girl begins her transformation from childhood to adulthood, and Jordan rarely lets you forget how monumental a change this is, for Rosaleen, for Angela Carter, clearly, and even for Jordan himself, hardly a teenaged girl but respectful enough of his main character to never underestimate her.

The majority of the film is a laundry list of Freudian symbolism, including but not limited to the color red representing, Sixth Sense–style, blood, death, danger, and, non-M.Nightly, menstruation; the shattering of childhood toys; lipstick and a mirror found in a bird’s nest; Terence Stamp as the devil, chauffeured in a white limousine by driver Rosaleen in a blonde wig, staring wistfully into the eye-sockets of the miniature skull he’s holding; and Rosaleen’s relationships with males, both the childlike playtime with an unnamed boy, and the dangerous, violent kiss from a man whose eyebrows meet, a man who kills her grandmother and encourages Rosaleen to throw her protective red shawl into the fire, as she won’t be needing it anymore.

At times, the symbolism Jordan foists upon you is like a giant Acme-brand mallet, poised above you ready to strike as you zip by underneath. Some of it is eye-rollingly obvious; some abstract to the point of incomprehension, such as at the end of the film when a lone wolf runs from the woods and jumps through Rosaleen’s real waking-life bedroom window, destroying her toys and shattering the dream-world of the film. This is a werewolf film that’s not really a werewolf film at all; certainly not in the way that its early-eighties predecessors were, avoiding horror for a more clinical observation of the myth and its repercussions.

A recent touchstone for the adolescence/adulthood theme that Jordan and Carter explored is Ginger Snaps, a snappy goth-inflected werewolf story that finds its main character approaching the late onset of menstruation while simultaneously turning into a wolf. It turns Jordan’s story on its ear by representing the female as wolf—something that, despite the strength and wiliness of Rosaleen, The Company of Wolves could scarcely imagine. Both films demonstrate the untapped depths of contemporary fairy tales and fables and myths for cinematic exploration, and while it would be difficult to claim that The Company of Wolves is an exceedingly important entry into Jordan’s oeuvre, it’s not a stretch to claim it as one of the cornerstones of recent werewolf movies, a challenge both artistically and intellectually.