The Company of Wolves was a slightly belated addition to a mini-revival of one of the more neglected of the repertory of gothic monsters, the werewolf. Even Hammer, who had done so much to revive the fortunes of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the mummy, only managed one outing for their shape-shifting cousin. Perhaps its power has been diminished as the untamed wilderness of which it was an embodiment has been swallowed up by the spread of urban civilisation. Like so many other species, it is a victim of habitat destruction. The lycanthropic surge at the turn of the 80s saw the release of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Michael Wadleigh’s The Wolfen, both of which stranded the creatures in the modern city, and Joe Dante’s The Howling, in which a new age forest retreat made for a perfect sanctuary and hunting ground of tamed wilderness. The Company of Wolves was released a couple of years after these films, and draws out the werewolf theme from the gothic primer of the fairy tale. In something of a triumph for independent producers Palace Pictures, who operated out of offices above the Scala Cinema in Kings Cross, this modestly budgeted British film received its premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square on September 21st 1984.
Keeping to the pathThe film was adapted from her own short stories by Angela Carter, in collaboration with the director Neil Jordan, himself an author turned director. Her collection The Bloody Chamber had explored the thinly concealed substrata of the fairy tale, that relic of the oral tradition of storytelling long since defanged and consigned to the nursery. Carter had also edited and introduced two volumes of fairy stories published by the Virago press, the first of which was retitled The Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book for its US edition, highlighting the female provenance of the tradition. These children’s tales bore a wealth of secret knowledge, allowing a feminine perspective on life to be voiced, and it is those voices which gives the structure to the film, through a series of nested stories which respond to and unfold from each other. Carter also knew her Freud, and the film is soaked with imagery drawn from his theories on the interpretation of dreams and the nature of the uncanny. But the feminist writer and anarchist spirit begged to differ with the bearded Viennese figure of authority, whose theories didn’t, of course, apply to himself (a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, after all). This story is one in which an adolescent girl interprets her own dreams and finds her own path through the woods, learning to become the author of her own self. She refuses to be subsumed by the stories told by others and the version of the world which they would impose upon her. As such, the film argues for the vital importance of the fairy story and the fiction of the fantastic in general, of the need to re-imagine the limits of the possible. It also challenges the role of fearful victim commonly ascribed to the female characters of gothic fictions, as represented on the cover of the magazine we see lying on the young girl’s bed at the start of the film. Stray from the path, Angela tells us, in contradiction to granny’s aphoristic commands, and explore the dark spaces beyond the village’s safe boundaries. The tales of terror you’ve been fed may well prove illusory when fearlessly faced.
Dream WindowThe film opens in the world of external reality, but it already seems at some remove from the everyday. A Volvo drives through an autumnal oak wood, paced by a racing Alsatian, until it reaches the drive of an old Georgian country house and the plunder of a trip to Sainsburys is unloaded. The camera glides into the house and up the staircase, the walls becoming increasingly grimy and dilapidated as we ascend, until finally we discover a young girl locked in the disarrayed sanctuary of her room. This is the place where the mad woman in the attic of gothic fiction would be hidden away, but the girl has exiled herself, locking the door from the inside. Her bedroom mixes the standard paraphernalia of teenage bedrooms with relics of a childhood soon to be left behind. Posters of New Romantic pop stars abut Beatrix Potter and Ladybird fairy tale books, the latter perhaps giving a hint as to how these stories have become neutered over time. The antique toys which perch on the shelves give a glimpse of older childhoods where such expurgations may have originated, staring down with glassy Victorian eyes. The screenplay specifies a poster of Lon Chaney as the Wolfman being on the wall, declaring a direct link with gothic cinematic antecedents, but this is absent from the final film. There are only so many symbols and meaningful objects you can pack into a small span of space and time. On the door, a white, bridal-looking dress hangs and sways back and forth in the breeze blowing through the open window, as if animated with its own inner life, struggling to unhook itself from the clothes hanger and fly free. This may be a homage to a similar symbolic image at the beginning of Powell and Pressburger’s film I Know Where I’m Going, another tale of a woman who decides to stray from the path set out before her, in this case the road which leads to the highlands and islands of Scotland and an opportunistic marriage into wealth and society. In Angela Carter’s published screenplay, the girl in the room is named as Alice, bringing to mind another young adventurer into dreamworlds. She is thus separated from her dream double, Rosaleen. It is Alice rather than her sister who meets her end in the borderlands of dream during the first exploration of the forest’s edge, a graphic enactment of the death of childhood. But in the film, she remains anonymous, unnamed other than by her sister’s hissed ‘pest’, and thus more closely linked with the Rosaleen of her inner world. The womblike inner sanctum of her room is the atrium of the dreamworld, and the camera leads us weightlessly though the window towards the dark forest, the Grimm heart of the primal stories.
The borderlands of dreamThis forest is the central gothic locale of the film, and one which indicates a journey into an inner landscape. The village huts, the church and even the gravestones have an amorphous, rounded shapelessness which suggests this interior nature. Insofar as the overarching clusters of soaring columns and the stone-carved foliage of medieval cathedrals seek to emulate the forms and the hushed ambience of the forest, it could indeed be said to be the birthplace of the gothic spirit, the wildwood constantly threatening to encroach upon the narrow compass of civilisation. The borderlands to which the real Rosaleen consigns her sister are still filled with the transformed objects of her room, the personal materials from which her dreamworld will be fashioned. Freud’s theories of the uncanny are realised as the inanimate comes to life, those Victorian toys, creepy enough in themselves, taking on the oversized menace of nightmare avengers. Semi-organic organ pipes blast out gothic chords and enormous mushrooms emphasize the dank darkness of the forest. The tree trunks seem to have the striated, reddish consistency of muscle tissue, an inner world literally built from fleshy matter. But this is only the edge, a territory still connected with the waking world. As with Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood stories, which excavate the strata of the mythical matter of Britain, the heart of the story lies deeper within, and we must venture towards more immaterial, symbolic realms.
Samuel Palmer setsThe forest was built on a couple of sound stages at Shepperton Studios, and it never loses the feel of a stage set, an enclosed environment. This is entirely to its advantage, and in keeping with the notion of an inner landscape. The mixture of props and painted backdrops and the freedom to play with lighting effects creates an artificiality perfect for the telling of a fairy tale. It enhances the enchantment, the feeling of being told a story, of being led through a series of book-plate illustrations in an old Edwardian tome. It is similar to the mood created in The Wizard of Oz, where we are entranced by the painted backdrops of a landscape which takes off where the studio set ends, the yellow brick road winding through fields and up over the hills to the distant horizon. Powell and Pressburger’s recreation of the Himalayas at Shepperton for Black Narcissus exerts a similar spell, with its beautiful glass paintings of lush distant valleys and pastel blue mountains visible beyond the set of the nuns’ missionary school. The forest set of the Woman of the Snow episode of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 anthology of Japanese ghost stories Kwaidan also bears a strong resemblance, and similarly creates a self-enclosed atmosphere of the uncanny through lighting and the striking non-naturalistic use of colour. These are atmospheres, relying as they do on the creation of a painterly look by the cinematographer, which the virtual palette of CGI, for all its manifold marvels, cannot hope to recreate. Indeed, the work of artists have a strong influence on the look of designer Anton Furst’s sets. Samuel Palmer, in particular, is a primary source, as a look at paintings such as Coming From An Evening Church and The Magic Apple Tree will affirm.
Samuel Palmer - Coming from an Evening ChurchThe film is peopled with a solid cast of dependable British character actors. Principle amongst these is Angela Lansbury, who plays Rosaleen’s grandmother, the source of the old wives’ wolves tales of she is told. Lansbury portrays the grandmother as an outwardly comforting figure who betrays steely hints of malevolence in the glints of light which reflect from the lenses of her wire-rimmed glasses. Her stories encourage a fearful and conformist view of the world in which the other, that which is different, is to be shunned. The poisonous core of these tales is like the maggot found wriggling inside the seemingly perfect apple which Rosaleen picks up from the ground of her garden. When Rosaleen starts to formulate her own stories, they are essentially ripostes to her granny’s tales. It is something of a story duel. Rosaleen reshapes the matter of her granny’s stories and uses them to work out her own burgeoning feelings. Tentatively testing her tales on her mother, she challenges the view of the world offered by the received wisdom of the older generation. This is evident in her final story through the inclusion of the vicar, for whom her granny has nothing but open contempt, as a figure with compassion for and acceptance of the other, the wild wolf-child who comes into the village naked and lost. Rosaleen’s empathy for this scorned outsider turns her granny’s stories inside out, and exorcises the fear at their heart. The wounds are now inflicted by the supposedly righteous, driving the despised innocent back into her underground retreat of alienated introversion. The wounds of the wolf-girl will never wholly heal, and her tears will flow forever, filling the well from which she emerged and to which she now returns.
Suave devil - Terry wears his wages wellThe vicar is played by the redoubtable Graham Crowden, who reads his passages from the bible with much the same quizzical cadences he used to read passages from history as the eccentric bicycle riding teacher in If… Also on hand are Brian Glover, who plays Brian Glover to a tee, and Terence Stamp as the immaculately tailored devil, holding what apparently is a pygmy skull before him, as if he’s working himself up to a soliloquy. This was Stamp’s first film in some while, having retreated into self-imposed exile for reasons unveiled in his evocatively elegiac autobiography Double Feature. The suit was the price of his appearance, and excellent value it was too. Remarkably, Neil Jordan wanted Andy Warhol for the part, and Andy was indeed interested, but circumstances conspired against the fulfilment of such a startling cameo (gee, what a shame). The gaily attired huntsman who Rosaleen meets towards the end of the film was played by the dancer and choreographer Micha Bergese, who was later to be the artistic director of the Millenium Dome show, for his sins. His performance is archly mannered, every movement carefully considered and balanced, as befits a dancer. He brings a muscular physicality to his transformation scene that lends it an intense immediacy that elaborate effects couldn’t have captured. With his blue brocaded frock coat, tricorne hat and high riding boots, he could be the original model for some of the New Romantic pop stars that deck the real Rosaleen’s walls. Could this in fact be ‘the dandy highwayman who you’re too scared to mention’? Post-punk goth singer Danielle Dax makes an effective silent appearance as the protagonist of Rosaleen’s final story. She plays the pitiful wild child, rejected by the world into which she tentatively emerges, sheltered for a short span by the vicar before crawling back into realms below. Sarah Patterson in the central role of Rosaleen bears much of the weight of the film, and she does so admirably, portraying the innocence and freshness of her character, but also the fortitude and questioning nature which leads her to forge her own path. Patterson didn’t follow up on this initial foray into acting, but has recently appeared in two films by English director Lisa Gornick, ‘Do I Love You’ and ‘Tick Tock Lullaby’. Mention should also be made of the fine score by George Fenton, which incorporates elements of Irish folk music and the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy, the latter rising to lush heights as Rosaleen climbs the largest tree in the forest. Fenton has gone on to be a prolific composer for film and TV, as he already was at the time, and has scored many of Ken Loach’s films as well as providing the sweeping orchestrations which accompany the awe-inspiring photography of the BBC’s Planet Earth series.
Rosaleen and the dandy highwaymanThe film is visually ravishing and full of beautiful poetic images. The sensual red of experience mixes with the pure white of innocence as blood in milk, blood on snow and tears staining a white rose red. The latter image brings to mind the drop of menstrual blood staining the white daisy petal in the 1968 Czechoslovakian fairy tale fantasia Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which could be considered something of a sister film to The Company of Wolves. Both represent, through the forms of the fantastic, the breaching of a young girl’s innocence and the encroachment of the cares and experiences of adulthood, but both show their young protagonists taking control of the symbolic landscapes in which their fables unfold and ultimately embracing the change which has come upon them. The moon occluded by the blinking of a superimposed eye is an image which also appears in the Woman of the Snow episode of Kwaidan mentioned above, and could be seen as representing the ever-watchful gaze of the omniscient overseer of the subconscious. Freudian protuberances are ubiquitous, whether they be the tumescent pump of the well at the centre of the village, rising above the wet, shadowy darkness of the shaft like a westernised Shiva Lingam, or the suggestively gnarled and knobby knot at the base of the tree which Rosaleen climbs. The bright red of Rosaleen’s riding hood shawl makes her stand out vividly against the drab, earthy colours with which the village peasantry are clothed. We also briefly see carts filled with glittering gemstones being pulled along rails emerging from mine shafts, suggesting a new, neighbouring locale for further fairy tales, extending perhaps to a whole continent of contiguous storybook worlds. There is a whole menagerie of symbolic beasts scattered throughout the film. Crows, toads, rats, owls, hedgehogs, storks, lizards, snakes and spiders; All the creatures of fear and magic, looking on with disinterest from branches and rocks, just as they do during the night-river journey in Charles Laughton’s film of Southern fairy tale gothic, Night of the Hunter.
Innocence tames the wolfThe film ends back at the Georgian house, back in Rosaleen’s bedroom. As the magazine cover had foretold, her dream is indeed shattered. Things will never be the same again. For once you have strayed from the path, the complex kaleidoscope of the imagination is shaken from its static pattern and can unfold into an infinite array of possibilities. The only boundaries are those of the mind. And they can be very wide indeed.
Beyond the forest canopy - exploring the boundaries
Reposted from From Out of the Shadows