Saturday, October 06, 2018

What Big Teeth You Have

The Company of Wolves

Although it came during the cycle of werewolf movies of the early 1980s, Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) doesn't have much in common with The Howling or An American Werewolf in London and their imitators. Apart from a taste for gory transformation effects, The Company of Wolves comes from the tradition of arty European horror movies from a decade or so earlier, indeed going back to the likes of Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast or Jaromil Jires's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Like these films, The Company of Wolves reinterprets the Gothic through a modernist lens, influenced as much by surrealism and by the various European New Wave movements as by the then-contemporary norms of the horror movie. Its director claims that it's not a horror movie at all, but there is a whiff of self-interested deflection in that pronouncement. And besides, Jordan has made several other horror movies of a similar bent, so it's not like a horror movie is out of character for him. But in some ways, he has a point. There is certainly an otherness to The Company of Wolves that sets it apart from its contemporaries.

The Company of Wolves is based on a clutch of short stories by Angela Carter, who specialized in revisionist fairy tales told through a feminist lens. It is framed as the dreams of a young girl who is in the throes of a nightmare, or perhaps of sexual awakening, and riffs on variations of the Little Red Riding Hood story. In the modern part of the film that frames the story, Rosaleen is tormented by her older sister so she dreams that she is torn apart by wolves. Her dream self is a peasant girl who lives in the darkest part of the forest, whose grandmother tells her horrible stories about how men are beasts in disguise. In one such, a woman's husband wanders into the night to piss and goes missing, presumably taken by wolves, only to return three years later after she's wed another man and borne his children. In his rage, he transforms into a wolf, but her new husband arrives home just in time and decapitates the wolf. Its head falls into a pot of chowder and bobs back to the surface transformed into the head of a man once more. In another story, a bastard boy whose eyebrows meet encounters the devil in the woods, who gives to him a potion to transform him into a beast. In a third, a woman wronged by a nobleman shows up at his wedding to another woman and curses him and all his family to become wolves to sing to her and her baby. Rosaleen herself is chided by her grandmother to always stick to the path when walking through the woods, but when she's out for a walk with a boy who makes unwanted amorous advances, she flees. Chasing after her, the boy discovers mutilated cattle. A hunt for the wolf is organized and when Rosaleen's father returns from the hunt, he carries a human hand that he swore belonged to the wolf they shot. They burn it in the fire. At last, Rosaleen is sent on the path to Grandmother's house, wearing a read cape her gran has knitted for her. On the way, she meets a stranger whose eyebrows meet, He bets her that he can arrive at grandmother's house before her by going off the path through the woods. He shortly arrives at Grandma's, beating Rosaleen, and kills her. When Rosaleen arrives, she's suspicious, but falls under the spell of the big bad wolf, who she pities as a lonely creature, trapped between worlds. She tells the wolf a story...

The Company of Wolves

The Company of Wolves is a film that I didn't really like when I first saw it back when it was in theaters. I headed to the parking lot completely confused about what I had just seen. I didn't really have a frame of reference for understanding it, not being privy to the cinematic tradition from whence it springs, nor did I yet have any feminist awareness of how the world works. I liked the gooey special effects, sure, but some of its more inexplicable images just washed off me. Even today, I'm still not sure what the film means by the eggs Rosaleen finds in the woods that have miniature statues of babies inside them, nor of why Grandma's head turns into a ceramic sculpture when she's decapitated by the wolf at the end of the film. As for the rest? Yeah, I "get" it these days. There is always a threat hanging in the air in this movie and more often than not it's a sexual threat, whether of domestic violence, of rape, of a faithless lover who will abandon you once he gets you with child, of being trapped in an oppressive patriarchy, of one's own sexual awakening. These are all very adult concerns, which The Company of Wolves projects onto the consciousness of a character who is twelve years old and just becoming aware of the world. She's confused by the way her parents behave with each other in opposition to the dire warnings about men delivered by her grandmother. After she spies her parents having sex, she asks her mother if her father was hurting her. "No," she says. Of course not. While all of these concerns are represented in horror movies, they are almost never represented from a feminine or a feminist point of view. This film's closest cinematic relative is Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, in which a young girl experiences visions of a dark, mythological world on the cusp of her menarche. The menstrual nature of The Company of Wolves is not explicit, but it can be elided by the film's choice of metaphors (the cyclical nature of lycanthropy, the persistent images of the moon, the age of its heroine). Sarah Patterson played Rosaleen when she was 12 years old, which makes her scenes with the very adult Micha Bergese deeply uncomfortable in a way that most versions of Red Riding Hood never approach.

Its thematic preoccupations are only one element of the film's otherness, though. This is a film where the image is as much a text as the script, so watching a table full of French aristocrats turn into wolves, or watching the wolves chase after Rosaleen's sister in various speeds of slow motion, or seeing The Devil drive up into this fairy tale forest in a Rolls Royce limousine while holding the skull of a pygmy, adds to the film's strangeness over and above what's there in the plot and the dialogue. The Company of Wolves is a triumph of production design, in which designer Anton Furst conjures a fairy tale world set sometime in a European past (the 17th century? the 18th? Who knows?) on a shoestring. This is a film with rich Gothic textures drawn in equal measure from 19th century children's books, Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Durer, Arthur Rackham, Gustav Dore, Jean Cocteau, Hammer horror films, and Walt Disney. The sun never shines in this film, and it always has a distinct set of reality that results from being entirely filmed on a stage, like it takes place in some parallel universe that's hermetically bounded by the edges of the film's reality rather than in a broader world. Furst would go on to win an Oscar for designing Gotham City for Tim Burton's Batman, but this film is likely his masterpiece.

The Company of Wolves

As I say, I didn't really like this film when I was a teenager, but I like it quite a bit these days. Films change over time as one's experiences change. This is a film that has a deep resonance with my life thirty-four years further on. Certainly the link between transformation and sexuality cuts to the core of my own life experience today, though I suspect that that link was what put me off of it in 1984. I was a pretty bad closet case as a teenager. I can't imagine that it's accidental that Jordan has dabbled in queer and transgender cinema more than once over the course of his career. This film has nary a hint of anything that could be considered LGBT content, and yet he gets the trans experience more right here, as refracted through this film's odd symbols, than he ever did in more realistic films like The Crying Game or Breakfast on Pluto.

It's a striking film regardless. It stays with you for a long time, which is not something one expects from a more disposable and generic horror movie, which this film certainly is not.

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