Going down to the woods for a majestic fairy tale of frightening splendour
Once upon a time…
… it was an early springtime night, somewhere in the South East of England. A young boy sat himself down in front of the television set in his cosy living room, his mother and elder sister for company. The boy, wide-eyed and fixated, was quietly unaware of the terrors that he would soon see bursting forth from the screen… before all of that though, a friendly ― but foreboding ― voice from the set spoke:
“On [Channel] 4 now, Film on Four presents The Company of Wolves. Made by Neil Jordan who also directed Mona Lisa, just remember that when those nostrils flare and there’s a licking of lips, there’s a hungry wolf, thinly disguised….and waiting.”
So spoke continuity announcer David Vickery on the night of Thursday 5th March, 1987, heralding the British television premiere of the film that remains my earliest vivid recollection of being absolutely, unutterably terrified by something. Before the time I was scared senseless by Superman III‘s cyborg with bad hair, or The Lost Boys‘ gang of vampires with great hair, there were monsters covered entirely in hair. What were my family thinking, letting me stay in the room when an ’18’-rated horror was on the telly and I was only five years old? Well, to give them credit, they probably didn’t realise it was an ‘18’. They probably heard it was about Little Red Riding Hood and figured it was a harmless fairy tale, admittedly one that was being screened at the less than family-friendly time of 9pm. Or maybe I’d been naughty and they thought I was long overdue for a good fright to set me straight.
I only lasted ten minutes. I watched, in terror, as a girl is pursued through a nocturnal, cobwebbed forest by bloodthirsty wolves who eventually devour her. I wasn’t keen on dogs to begin with. I was frightened of the dark. I hated the sound of screaming. I was scared of forests… all of that put together made for a total sensory overload, a nightmare laid out on screen. The thing is, the actual sequence in the film is a nightmare. It’s a dream from within the mind of our lead character, 12-year old Rosaleen, who falls asleep in her eerily old-fashioned bedroom in her family’s eerily old-fashioned house where, and get this, for this is the bit that I never, ever, ever forgot, the moment that turned me into a terrified wreck instantly – as she falls asleep, the daytime around her fades into scary moon-lit darkness within seconds. All the security and reassurance of daytime, gone, just like that. That was far too much for me. How on Earth I continued to watch beyond that precise moment I have no idea. Maybe it was a few more minutes before I could make vocal my spellbound horror and by then a girl had been killed by wolves. Not in detail, mind you – the film refrained entirely from gore at this early stage. I’m glad I did bail out right then and there, for if I had continued watching, I’d probably still be in therapy.
So began my first exposure to one of the most beguiling, haunting and mesmerising British films ever made, a true masterpiece and even a surprise UK box office hit given its remarkably unconventional narrative. The Company of Wolves is a chilling, ravishing, frightening, beautiful work of art that, when I did eventually watch the whole thing, ended up being one of the most cherished films of my teenage years. It was the first feature to be produced by Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell’s Palace Pictures, which would later experience a tumultuous, brief lifetime of extreme highs and lows, resulting in its dissolution in 1992. This debut was, without a doubt, was one of their major highs.
The Company of Wolves was also the versatile Neil Jordan’s second film ― his first, 1982‘s moody, Channel Four co-produced revenge-mystery Angel, had established him as a director of striking talent, and yet this follow-up couldn’t have been any more different. In direct contrast to Angel‘s contemporary, Troubles-era setting, frequent tough violence and natural location filming, this was a fantastical fairy tale, a story of dreams, and of fables and stories told within those dreams. It was almost entirely shot in lavishly decorated sound stages and evoked a truly uncanny atmosphere that has rarely been matched in fantasy and horror cinema.
Rosaleen: Little girls, this seems to say / Never stop upon your way / Never trust a stranger friend / No-one knows how it will end / As you’re pretty, so be wise / Wolves may lurk in every guise / Now as then, ’tis simple truth / Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.
Abandoning initial plans to develop the script which nearly a decade later would become The Crying Game, Jordan turned to the work of Angela Carter, the brilliant writer whose superb 1979 collection of delectable twists on traditional fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, had become a critical sensation. These short stories took existing myths and folk tales ― chiefly those popularised by 17th century French author Charles Perrault, including Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast and, most notably, the cautionary fable Little Red Riding Hood ― and brought out into the open their themes of sexuality and gender, creating new tales that were at once familiar and yet strikingly different. It was Carter’s breakthrough after more than a decade of increasingly ambitious, spectacular writing that refused to be tied down to single genres, of books that were thrillingly, unpredictably wild in their imaginative execution and yet were arguably so original and impossible to pin down that maybe it was unsurprising that mainstream success eluded her. Indeed, much of Carter’s fiction is so incredibly vivid, so astonishing in its imagery that adapting it for film seemed either a) impossible or b) unnecessary. Since The Company of Wolves, there has been only one more filmed version of her work, 1986‘s fine television adaptation of her debut novel The Magic Toyshop.
Before talk of feature-length films had surfaced, Carter had already been commissioned by the newly-formed UK terrestrial network Channel Four to write a half-hour script based on The Bloody Chamber‘s ‘The Company of Wolves’. This short-story took the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, with its classic narrative of the eponymous girl who encounters a wolf disguised as her freshly-devoured granny, with fatal or close-call results (depending on which version you were told), extrapolated its latent sexual themes and brought them right out into the open, climaxing with our heroine laughing off the threat of her predator and seducing him in turn, taming him to the point where they even share a bed together in blissful harmony.
Soon after Carter met with Jordan, the two of them elaborated substantially on ‘The Company of Wolves’ – both the short story and its radio adaptation – and created something longer, more expansive and unconventional. Jordan would refer to it as a script ‘that lost all touch with common decency. It became gothic and sensual, acquiring a special kind of horror. Images began to come from nowhere, lurid and illogical, but somehow perfect for the tale‘. Such was the ambition of the script that Palace, realising what it would take to make it a reality, had to request backing from outside sources, finally striking gold with ITC Entertainment who, thanks to Woolley and Powell’s trademark knack for brash confidence (this would win them as many detractors as admirers), were convinced enough to grant them a £2,000,000 budget to make it happen. A major asset to the film was the extraordinary production designer Anton Furst, who would go all-out in conjuring a world that Woolley was determined would equal the vivacious, otherworldly, vivid cinema of Powell and Pressburger, where visuals burst forth from the screen in a ripe, voluptuous rush of sheer originality and sensuality. Added to all of this wild artifice was the very real presence of wildlife – spiders, snakes, frogs, owls and ― of course ― wolves. This mix of the real and unreal produced a magical, yet tangibly threatening world, superbly captured by Bryan Loftus’ eerily dark, graceful cinematography.
The end result was spellbinding. Seamlessly weaving ‘The Company of Wolves’ into a larger, as Jordan puts it, ‘Chinese box’ narrative, we are introduced the character of Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson in an impressive debut), a girl on the cusp of womanhood who in the present day avoids her misunderstanding parents and mean sister by retreating into her dreams, where she is alive in the 18th century in a rural world born of her subconsciousness. With her sister killed by wolves and her parents grieving, Rosaleen is sent to stay with her Granny (an absolutely fantastic Angela Lansbury, whom Jordan astutely describes as ‘benignly sinister’). Granny proceeds to warn Rosaleen of the terrors of the forest, of bloodthirsty wolves and of course, the most dangerous beasts of all ― men ― particularly men who are ‘hairy on the inside’ and are nice as pie until ‘they’ve had their way with you’. Most importantly tough, Rosaleen must follow three rules, which may not have ended up as popular as the ones from the same year’s Gremlins but are arguably even more important:
1) Never eat a windfall apple.
2) Never stray from the path.
3) Never trust a man whose eyebrows meet.
Sage advice. Granny tells Rosaleen tales of long-departed bridegrooms who try and eat their spouses upon their return, or what happens when you make a deal with the Devil to speed up one’s journey towards adulthood. These are the kind of tales guaranteed to instil fear into the listener, to keep them imprisoned within their own terror; veiled scare tactics to stop the likes of Rosaleen from experiencing the world for herself, ensuring that she stays a child forever, or at the very least to keep her on the straight and narrow path of righteousness. Yet while the village’s menfolk plot to catch and kill the local wolf threat, Rosaleen finds herself drawn to the unknown, be it the awkward clumsiness of first kisses offered from the local farmer’s boy, a remarkable self-discovery high up a tree, and most urgently, the presence of a handsome, seductive huntsman who wagers with her that he can get to Granny’s house before she does…
This final stretch of the film, and most of what follows, is lifted from ‘The Company of Wolves’, although the more overtly sexualised material was toned down so that Rosaleen does not take off her clothes, she does not persuade the huntsman to do the same and the two do not share a bed. But she definitely proves more than a match for him in other ways. After seeing that Granny has been killed, she turns on her aggressor with his own gun, and while the suspenseful ‘all the better to see/hug/eat you with’ build-up is as loaded with unsettling sexual tension as it was in Carter’s story, we no longer see the wolf being ultimately laughed at. Instead Rosaleen takes the more violent stance of shooting him whilst he is still in huntsman-form. Writhing in agony and pain, the wolf inside him literally emerges but ultimately proves no threat. The things that Rosaleen has been told to fear – wolves and men – have turned out to be surprisingly gentle.
Metaphors and symbolism play a major role in The Company of Wolves, and repeated viewings reap delicious rewards. For Carter, the wolves themselves represent our projected fears and negative perceptions about ourselves, our libidos, our capacity for violence. The wolves, and what they represent, constantly shift ― to begin with they are pure, carnivorous ferocity (Rosaleen’s real-world smile after her sister is killed in her dream suggests that she conjured them up to enact revenge against her), and via Granny they are truly, terrifyingly monstrous, but by the end, after the dreamworld Rosaleen has seen them up close, they become dangerously desirable, vulnerable, wounded and even symbolic of thrilling change. To the village though, they are a disturbance to society, and must be destroyed. By projecting all of our anxieties and darker facets onto these creatures, they become the enemy, and that way, we can feel better about ourselves when we kill them. Yet with Rosaleen crying in her sleep, we see someone who empathises with their plight too. They become beautiful, pitiable. Then of course, there’s the huntsman, who represents her wary, but first real pangs of sexual desire ― when Granny demands what he’s done with her, he responds, ‘nothing she didn’t want’. The wolves are whatever our gut feelings want them to be.
The most notable, and dominant instance of metaphor here is the story as allegory for puberty, specifically female puberty. Carter regards The Company of Wolves as ‘a menstrual movie’. Rosaleen is becoming a young woman, and her referred-to sulkiness in the opening scenes is something we can all relate to from our memories of those turbulent years. Trying on her sister’s makeup in the real world, as well as discovering lipstick and a mirror in the bird’s nest in her dreams (as well as eggs that hatch tiny baby statuettes) alludes to a self-awareness of her sexuality and the possibilities of motherhood. Her received gift of a red shawl symbolises the onset of menstrual blood. Hearing her parents have sex confuses Rosaleen; she wrongly assumes her father is hurting her mother, but mother reassures her that Granny’s alarmist, old-fashioned tales of brute masculinity ignore the truth that ‘if there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women too’. Rosaleen is constantly learning more about the world, herself and her own desires, throughout the film.
The final tale we are told is that of a wolfgirl, who ‘meant no harm’, being shot and wounded by a villager but who is then nursed to health by a kindly priest. This could be read as a metaphor for a girl’s first period ― the blood may frighten and alarm, but there’s nothing to be afraid of. Indeed, there are a gorgeous couple of shots where a white rose is stained red and becomes something even more beautiful. Jordan has stated that he sees the wolves as a metaphor for sex, as initially something to be feared, but then that fear is transcended, faced head-on and understood. Interestingly, this is the first and only tale that Rosaleen comes up with herself. She’s learning to accept her changes, and not to fear them. After the Wolfgirl story, Rosaleen opts to become a wolf herself, abandoning her parents and leaving the path, and childhood, forever. Carter wanted the film to then end with Rosaleen, having woken from her dream, to escape her reality by literally diving into her bedroom floor, as though it was a pool, but the limitations of budget and effects meant it was an impossibility. Carter was not happy with the film’s eventual resolution, where in an final twist, Rosaleen-as-wolf, together with her new-found family pack, break through out of the dream world and into modern-day Rosaleen’s reality, looking set to devour her as she screams in terror. You can see why Carter would have had her misgivings. It does muddy the liberating message of the film somewhat.
So what to make of the ending? On a literal level we have a film where a girl’s dreams have become real and are about to consume her ― it’s a scary finale. Yet there’s more. After all, the film seemed to be on the side of the wolves in the preceding moments ― they represent freedom from self-oppression, an exhilarating step into independence and sheer animal passion, but the modern-day Rosaleen, screaming in her bed, her toys crashing to the floor, doesn’t seem to welcome any of this at all. It’s almost like the adult Rosaleen (represented as wolf) has come to finally do away with her adolescent predecessor. Be careful what you wish for. As exciting as adulthood seems to be, it’s also on other levels, pretty terrifying. You can take what you want from this ending ― you can see the wolves’ arrival in the real world as something that actually happens, or purely as transgressive metaphor. It’s the only time in the film (I would argue that the sudden switch from day to night at the start of the film is a brilliant cinematic device to take us into the dream world and not ‘real’) where you have to really make a choice in how you view the film ― everything before takes place in a dream and can be enjoyed on both surface and metaphorical levels, and if you prefer, strictly the former. After all, if you don’t wish to work out the hidden meaning behind it all, simply just luxuriating in the sheer impossibility of what’s on screen is just as rewarding. Indeed, Carter herself has been quoted as saying of her stories: “I’ve tried to keep an entertaining surface…so that you don’t have to read them as a system of signification if you don’t want to”, yet by the end of The Company of Wolves, the shocking, literally wall-breaking ending shatters all comfortable presumptions, leaving one utterly unnerved.
Speaking of unnerving, one thing The Company of Wolves really brought out to the forefront was its explicit horror imagery ― by 1984, a mini-wave of spectacular werewolf films had already been released, with films like An American Werewolf in London and The Howling setting an incredible new standard for shape-shifting terror. Unafraid to spare on the blood and grue, The Company of Wolves featured some vivid transformation sequences that were arguably even more ingenious than their predecessors in terms of sheer imaginative, WTF execution. Christopher Tucker’s astonishingly weird effects presented to us sights such as a bridegroom (Stephen Rea, reunited with Jordan following his hypnotic lead performance in Angel) tearing the skin off his face to reveal the raw musculature of a gradually metamorphosing beast. While some of the mechanics of that sequence are obvious, I do think that only half of the impact of special effects is in the effects themselves. The rest is how the film and the cast react to it, and I don’t care if people say that the wolf animatronics look fake, because when I see the character of the bride and her screaming children stricken with utter horror, I believe it. I really do.
Granny: Your only sister, all alone in the wood, and nobody there to save her. Poor little lamb.
Rosaleen: Why couldn’t she save herself?
Granny: You don’t know anything, you’re only a child.
We also get other great, nightmarish visions, such as in the small tale of a boy who sells his soul to the Devil (a delectably evil Terence Stamp), a frightening depiction of accelerated adulthood, where said boy, after applying a mysterious potion on his chest, sprouts bodily hair at an alarming rate, and the trees and branches of the forest begin to wrap themselves around his body. Then there’s the story of a wronged, impregnated-then-abandoned witch who, jilted by her lover, proceeds to change him, his bride and the gluttonous guests at their wedding party into wolves. The magnificent, memorable mass transformation of Regency-period snobs and nobs into wine-guzzling, chicken drumstick-devouring wolves (still in the refinery of their earlier incarnation), is at once horrifying and absurdly comic.
The best is saved for last though. When the huntsman is shot by Rosaleen, the wolf in him finally breaks free, its snout erupting from his screaming, stretched mouth. It’s a truly stunning moment, an image unlike anything else, so good they used it for the posters in some countries. So many of the other sights here are truly, unforgettably mesmerising ― a severed head floating in a pot of blood-infused milk, another head being knocked clean off the shoulders and breaking, like china, against a fireplace, extraordinary close-ups of an eye moving in and out of shot as its owner rocks back and forth on a chair, the full-moon turning blood red (with that same eye inside it), wolves bursting forth through the canvas of a painting in a house consumed by fallen autumn leaves…this truly is the stuff of dreams…of nightmares.
Which makes sense, I suppose. Given that only around five of its ninety-plus minutes take place in the film’s accepted ‘reality’, it’s no surprise that the film exudes a truly strange, unreal atmosphere. The forest, where nature takes control and we have to watch our backs, has always been an environment that storytellers have explored to exploit our deepest fears and curiosities. Few films have tapped into that kind of primal, childhood fear of the the fantastic and the unknown like this. Rarely has darkness, the night and all that is terrifying and beautiful about it been so vividly conveyed. The sights of trees silhouetted against the night sky. The moon. The black space of empty darkness, where your imagination fills in the void with your deepest fears, and you end up wanting to sleep with the light on. Right from my first, swiftly curtailed childhood viewing, The Company of Wolves proved to be a massively influential film in how I’ve reacted to all things impossibly, fantastically frightening.
One major contributor to this film’s immense power is George Fenton’s score. His pieces throughout are an inspired melding of classical, stringed instrumentation and contemporary, atmospheric synths ― sometimes it’s gorgeous, sometimes it’s delightfully whimsical, at other times it’s very scary. The opening theme sets the scene perfectly ― playfully sinister, wickedly unsettling ― it sets the mysterious, alluring and scary tone of the film perfectly. The theme for when Rosaleen’s sister finds herself trapped in an unwelcome nightmare forest is truly frightening. No wonder I was so terrified as a child. Yet the piece ‘One Sunday Afternoon…’, so long as you ignore its sinister coda, is seriously breathtaking, soaring and lovely. Perfectly mirroring the moment when Rosaleen ascends the tree and takes in the forest at its most beautiful, rarely has sound and vision synced so gorgeously. Best of all though is his piece for ‘The Wolfgirl’ story. Fenton gives this most tender of tales an unparalleled nocturnal grace, full of yearning sensuality. It’s probably the most eerily haunting piece of music I have ever heard in a film. Listen to it in the dark and you will leave your room and end up somewhere else entirely.
Given its off-kilter nature, it’s quite amazing that The Company of Wolves became a hit of sorts. On the plus side, there had already been promising, excited reactions of preview footage screened at Cannes, but there were problems when the BBFC insisted on an teen audience-restricting 18 certificate. While it’s certainly not for viewers as young as I was back in 1987, the adults-only rating was harsh back then and remains so now. Despite those memorably gruesome wolf transformations, it’s perfect ‘15’ rated material, and since it’s actually about an adolescent girl’s journey into womanhood, rating it any higher than a ‘15’ sounds crazy. Elsewhere, there were complications involving the London Transport Authority’s refusing to pass the film’s vivid promotional posters. Admittedly, large-scale images of wolves emerging from mouths probably would have been a bit much for little ones accompanying mummy and daddy on the Tube during a day out in the city.
Therefore, with these commercial obstacles to overcome, bold strategics were necessary. For its British debut, Palace took the rather ostentatious move of screening The Company of Wolves at the Odeon Leicester Square, hardly a modestly-sized cinema, and best known for its huge celebrity premieres, but the gambit paid off. This strange, strange film, buoyed by a superb critical reception, ended up becoming a success! Unfortunately in the US, its commercial strategy and reception was more awkward, given that Stateside distributor Cannon delivered an effective, if overwrought R-rated trailer that made it out to look like a full-on horror rather than the more poetic, dreamlike and unusual film it really was, serving only to mislead the few audiences who did show up to watch it. Since 1984, it has enjoyed a long, under-the-radar, hiding-in-the-forest life as one of the most remarkable films of its era, and of all time. The Company of Wolves is not only a film you can purely feel, but one you can also read so, so much into. The rewards are infinite. Intellectual and sensual, metaphorical and visceral, beautiful and scary. It really is a classic.