The Scoop: 1984 R, directed by Neil Jordan and starring Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, and David Warner
Tagline: The desire… the fantasy… the nightmare
Summary Capsule: A girl’s symbolic werewolf nightmare about puberty, 80s fantasy style.
Eunice’s Rating: “However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative—to dream dreams, and see apparitions.”
Eunice’s Review: So it’s been a while since I’ve done a truly hardcore “cult” movie. And I assure you The Company of Wolves is such a movie. Even if they’ve heard the name, not many people have actually watched it. Not quite breaking even when it was released, it found its audience years later through VHS and late night cable showings. And that audience is quite enthusiastic, I once found a website devoted to dissecting and presenting different theories on the meaning of one scene. A whole website about just one scene.
TCoW is structurally unusual as it’s told through short stories within a girl’s dream and the world where she’s asleep. I’ll be upfront with you THE ENTIRE MOVIE IS SYMBOLISM.
Now don’t run away, hear me out!
In fact, it’s the foremother of movies like Ginger Snaps, and what I imagine Labyrinth would’ve been more like if a woman had been involved in making it. Adapted from Angela Carter’s short story feminist adult versions of fairytales, TCoW is a half dream/half nightmare allegory of female puberty.
Wait! Don’t leave! I promise we’ll get to the werewolves!
So where was I? Oh yeah, “allegory of female puberty.” That may sound a little heavy, but anyone who has had to sit through even one poetry study in school will be able to grasp it. The usual symbolic gang is here: Red, blood, flowers, swords, snow. And anyone who’s ever bothered to look deeper at fairytales knows that good girls “don’t stray from the path.” So pretty much everything has to do with sexuality and growing into adulthood.
But you don’t have to watch it that way if you don’t want to. It’ll make more sense that way, but you don’t have to.
TCoW is also an 80s horror fantasy. The basic setup is this: In the real world Rosaleen has shut herself up in her room complaining she has a “tummy ache.” Her parents, having just returned home, send her older sister up to get her, but Rosaleen has fallen asleep. While her sister bratilly yells at her from the other side of the door Rosaleen starts to dream.
In the dream Rosaleen’s sister, having accidentally lost her way and strayed into the dark of the woods, has just been killed by wolves. (revenge fantasy much?) So Rosaleen, her parents and her Granny live on in a rural mountain village in, like, Germany (it’s a dream, just go with it). Granny fills Rosaleen’s head with old wives tales about monsters who are hairy on the inside and show their true forms when the moon is full. And the stories about werewolves and the devil are shown onscreen as vignettes.
And then one day walking through the woods on the way to Granny’s house she meets a handsome man whose eyebrows meet in the middle…
Being weaved so strangely together, with characters getting such short screen time, it’s actually pretty amazing that some of the performances stand out so sharply. Twelve year old Sarah Patterson does a fairly good job at Rosaleen considering this is her first movie (Due to her age some of the script had to be rewritten). This may be the only time I’ve seen David Warner play a good guy, I really like him as the Father here. And either this or Princess Caribou was the first time I saw Stephen Rea in anything, and as the first werewolf he’s pretty unforgettable (more on that in a second). Micha Bergese is a find as the Huntsmen (read Intermission! below) and as this movie’s Jareth it’s no wonder why so many fans who saw this in their teens remember him so vividly, he’s charming and threatening and a little vulnerable (the fact that he’s 39 here we’re just going to ignore, okay?).
I think my favorite performance though has to be Angela Lansbury as Granny. In a way, even though the wolves eat people, and Granny is the one who tells Rosaleen about the wolves, she comes off as menacing. Neil Jordan has said Lansbury was his first choice based off of her turn in The Manchurian Candidate and he wasn’t wrong, she brings that same villainous but strong confident quality, turned way down of course. I think anyone who considers themselves a fan of hers should see this movie.
As for the effects I’m impressed by how well they hold up. The werewolf transformations are some of the best I’ve seen. Not surprising considering that just three years earlier An American Werewolf in London had set the bar extremely high. This is the only other movie I’ve seen that could touch it, and Stephen Rae’s transformation is especially horrific. *shivers* The second one is pretty cringe worthy (and I mean that as compliment to the effects and makeup team) too, and the wedding party scene is really creative. TCoW makes a solid argument for the longevity of quality practical effects.
That said, this isn’t a horror horror movie if you catch my drift. The parts that are gory, are really gory (again that first transformation), but it leans much further into fantasy. I think the wedding feast scene is my favorite of the shorts somehow it feels the most complete to me, and the transformations are neatly grotesque. I like how it ends and the bit with the band and servants is a nice touch.
The Company of Wolves is the kind of movie that you could watch twenty times and pick up on something you’ve missed before, or get a different interpretation out of scene. I recommend it for people who like fairytale movies, werewolves, are looking for something different for Halloween perhaps, or who want to increase some of their cult movie knowledge.
- British novelist Angela Carter and director Neil Jordan adapted this from some of the short stories in her collection The Bloody Chamber -The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves, Wolf Alice- and Carter’s radio play version of The Company of Wolves. The original screenplay can be found in The Curious Room. “Carter’s proposed ending for the film would have featured Rosaleen diving into the floor of her bedroom and being swallowed up as by water.” This didn’t happen due to the technology limitations at the time.
- Charles Perrault’s moral for girls to beware of charming strangers from Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood) is read over the credits.
- Dancer and choreographer Micha Bergese was brought in to help Stephen Rea and the as yet uncast Huntsman with their performances. Neil Jordan was so impressed he offered him the part.
- Only two real wolves are in the movie, the rest are dyed Belgian Shepherds
- At the end of the wedding feast, that poor peacock gets run over by the wolves! (He gets back up flustered but okay)
- In the first story, those babies are too cute
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: Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.
Repeated line: Seeing is believing.
Mother: You pay too much attention to your granny. She knows a lot but she doesn’t know everything. And if there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women too.
Granny: You can’t trust anyone, least of all a priest! He’s not called “father” for nothin’.
Granny: Get ye back to Hell from whence ye came!
Huntsman: I don’t come from Hell, I come from the forest.
Huntsman: Are you very much afraid?
Rosaleen: It wouldn’t do me much good to be afraid would it?
Rosaleen: What big eyes you have.
Huntsman: All the better to see you with.
Rosaleen: They say seeing is believing, but I’d never swear to it.
Rosaleen: What big arms you have.
Huntsman: All the better to hug you with.
Rosaleen: They say the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman. And as it turns out, they’re right. A fine gentleman.
Rosaleen: Jesus! What big teeth you have!
Huntsman: All the better to eat you with.
Rosaleen: I’m sorry. I never knew a wolf could cry.
Rosaleen: Little girls, this seems to say Never stop upon the way Never trust a stranger friend No-one knows where it may 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.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Ginger Snaps
- Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
- The Magic Toyshop
- Cat People (1942)
- An American Werewolf in London