The Company of Wolves (1984)

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In a rustic manor out in the English countryside, Rosaleen lies in bed and dreams of a different world located in the distant forest outside her window, a world where her sister doesn’t exist, werewolves are real, and she has to journey through the darkened forest to visit her grandmother, all while wearing a bright-red cape…..

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The Company of Wolves is fascinating, though slightly odd, English fantasy/horror romp from 1984. It is one of the first directorial credits for Neil Jordan, who would go on to direct other well known films such as The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire, and most recently Greta. Of course he also directed In Dreams, so unfortunately they’re not all winners, but overall he’s produced a pretty solid oeuvre, and that includes The Company of Wolves. Though the film is far from being the typical output seen in most werewolf related horror films. Where other films may focus primarily on the horror aspect, The Company of Wolves instead focuses on the fantasy, and is more concerned with the transition between childhood and adulthood, and all of this is seen from the female perspective, thanks to co-writer Angela Carter. The result is a very adult-oriented retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale, with a high focus on imagery and symbolism, one that treats the subject of werewolves more as a metaphor for life, as opposed to a living, breathing organism.

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What clearly makes the film stand out the most is it’s stunning visuals and surrealist imagery. This is by far the nicest looking werewolf movie I think I’ve ever seen. The composition of each scene was clearly measured and well thought out. The colors are bright and striking, with particular focus paid to the color red, most notably Rosaleen’s cape. The lighting is perfect, with masterful use of bright highlights and dark shadows to create wonderfully contrasting shots. This isn’t the type of movie where you have trouble seeing what’s going on. Even in the ‘night’ scenes, all the details are crisp, clear and discernable. Everything, even some of the more unsettling scenes, are just a pleasure to look at.

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I could probably take screenshots of this film for days, but I’ll refrain.

Aiding the visuals are the movie’s semi-surrealist bent. Tiny little statues hatch out of birds eggs, heads shatter like porcelain, and Rosaleen’s sister is literally killed in the woods by a pack of wolves and an assortment of creepy, run-down, seemingly sentient, oversized children’s toys. This is clearly not the typical “enchanted forest” we’ve become accustomed to. Yet despite it’s oddities, it all seems to work astoundingly well. It is supposed to be taking place in a dream, afterall, so things not seeming quite real isn’t any type of mental barrier. Part of its effectiveness is likely largely due to the use of some well crafted practical effects. The film was made in an era before CGI really started to take off, so while the imagery may be a little off-putting at times, most of it still remains grounded in semi-reality. The filmmakers clearly knew what they were doing. Even the fakeness of the forest setting itself, which is all obviously filmed on highly stylized movie sets, works as a help rather than a hindrance. Some of it is undoubtedly odd as hell, but most of it is subtle enough that it doesn’t end up being too distracting from the overall narrative. Of course, some of the effects don’t really stand the test of time, including one egregious dog animatronic that looks particularly obvious, but overall I’d say most of what’s here holds up surprisingly well.

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But — I hear you say — no matter how much surrealism, symbolism or metaphors there are, this is still a movie about werewolves, so are there any transformations and do they look any good? To that I can say, yes and absolutely. In fact the movie gives you three separate werewolf transformations and while they all look completely different, I think they remain equally effective. In the first a man literally peels his skin from his face in absolutely gruesome fashion, essentially jumping in the viewers face and loudly proclaiming “Yes! This is why the film’s rated R!” And in another, a fully formed wolf emerges from the mouth of a writhing, screaming man. I’m sure there’s likely a small mountain of symbology regarding the meaning behind both of these transformations, but I won’t get into that. Just rest assured that they’re all suitably creepy, grisly and disturbing.

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As far as the acting goes, I think few people could really complain. Sure, you could probably find something to gripe about in regards to some of the secondary characters, but the main cast is filled with talented newcomers and industry professionals. Sarah Patterson, who I believe was only 12 at the time, is perfectly suited for the role of Rosealeen. She is shy and naive, but also insatiably curious of the world around her, her budding adulthood, and is highly uncomfortable with everyone’s apparent obsession with her budding adulthood. It’s a shame she only seems to have one other movie credit to her name. Much of the rest of the cast is filled with familiar English and Scotish movie and TV faces, including Graham Crowden, Stephen Rea, David Warner, and probably most notably Angela Lansbury as the kindly and quirky old grandmother who likes to tell her granddaughter stories about werewolves. Everyone fits their roles perfectly, and I’d be quite surprised if anyone could really find any fault in the casting. I mean, you get to hear Angela Lansbury talking about men pissing in pots. What’s there to complain about?

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Nothing? That’s precisely what I thought you’d say.

I can really find very little to complain about with this film, but if I had to choose, I’d say that I’m just a little bit baffled by one particular scene. In itself, The Company of Wolves is essentially a wolf-related anthology, but in general, all the stories center in one way or another around Rosaleen. The entire fairytale wood is Rosaleen’s dream. The stories her grandmother tells may all be about werewolves, but they are being told to Rosaleen, or Rosaleen tells the stories herself. Or the events in the wood happen to others, but have a tangential connection back to Rosaleen, either through her family, her admirer, or an event that happened to her. EXCEPT for one scene where I can’t really discern any connection. It involves a boy from the woods, who I’m sure lives in the same village though we’ve never seen before, buying some sort of potion (that I’m sure has to do with puberty or manliness, or some such thing) from a man holding the skull of an infant, and is being driven around in a white Rolls Royce. Of course using the potion backfires, as all potions given by smarmy men holding baby skulls in flashy cars are wont to do, and the forest goes all Evil Dead on the youth. I think the film tried to link it together with the rest of the story by having the driver of the car be the same actress as Rosaleen, but the whole thing still feels suspiciously out of place in a movie where almost everything seems suspiciously out of place.

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Wait! Come Back! Who were you, and what did you have to do with wolves?!

Overall, I’d say The Company of Wolves proves to be a pretty excellent werewolf film. I quite enjoyed it. The visuals are stunning, the effects are lovely and gruesome, the acting is great, and the pacing is perfect, with none of the stories overstaying their welcome. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. All the focus on the symbolism and adolescent sexuality is a nice change of pace from the typical werewolf outing, but it can be a little much, and in some cases it can feel downright forced to the point where you’ll likely want to roll your eyes. Thankfully though, the film isn’t too obnoxious or heavy handed in its approach, so for the most part I think the film works fairly well. If you like werewolf stories or anthologies, then this should be right up your alley.

The Company of Wolves is available for streaming on a variety of platforms, including free on Tubi TV.

It is also available on DVD and Bluray.

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Michi

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