Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves adapts the short story of the same name by author Angela Carter – who also co-wrote the film’s screenplay. It tells not one narrative but several, all linked together in such a manner as to make it a maddening thing to summarise. A girl dreams of living in an 18th century village on the edge of a forest. There are wolves in human clothing, and people in danger. The best way to describe it is basically as what it is: ‘a collection of fairy tales about werewolves’.
The Company of Wolves is an incredible film and a difficult one. Incredible because it is a superb work of tone and atmosphere, and a richly developed combination of folk tale and screen horror. Difficult because it has a nested storyline like a set of Russian dolls, and in that regard Jordan and Carter overplay their hand terribly. The entire story is framed by a wholly unnecessary present day sequence that achieves nothing but increase the running time and reduces the impact of the remaining film; after all, if everything is a dream, what does it ultimately matter to the characters?
Thankfully the portmanteau of stories are fantastic. They each have a strong sense of menace about them, not to mention a provocative erotic tone. There is also a heavy gendered slant going on, which brings to the film one of the less subtle subtexts: the werewolves are men, and they prey on women. They take on different forms and styles. Stephen Rea plays a werewolf that is cruel and brutish. Micha Bergese plays a werewolf that is amorous and seductive. Their angles may differ, but their intentions are the same. This is a message quite common in fairy tales; Carter does a fabulous job of focusing and sharpening it. To beware the wolf is to beware the man.
The film is almost entirely produced on a soundstage, giving everything a rather theatrical and unreal appearance. Jordan works that to his favour. The stories are unsettling ones, and the light artificiality of the film enhances that feeling. The visual effects are both striking and effective, with no small amount of gore involved. The distinctive imagery of the film is part of what has enabled it to be so fondly remembered for so long.
Sarah Patterson plays the protagonist Rosaleen. She is very effective, and immediately likeable. It is a pity her career never particularly took off – she shows so much promise and presence here. Angela Lansbury is also tremendous as Rosaleen’s grandmother. Following this film she played Jessica Fletcher on the American mystery series Murder She Wrote for more than a decade. The memory of that high profile role has perhaps dulled people’s idea of what a phenomenal talent she is. She is pitch-perfect here. The supporting cast is solid, and includes a number of notable British actors including Graeme Crowden, David Warner, Brian Glover, and particularly memorable Terence Stamp as the Devil himself.
As noted above, the framing device turns the overall film into a bit of a mess, but once the initial narrative turbulence passes The Company of Wolves emerges as an innovative and memorable fantasy spectacle. It is imperfect for sure, but it is also rather wonderful.