“The great majority of symbols in the dream are sex symbols.”–Sigmund Freud, “Symbolism in the Dream,” A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis
DIRECTED BY: Neil Jordan
FEATURING: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, Micha Bergese, Tusse Silberg, David Warner
PLOT: An adolescent girl lies in her bed, dreaming feverishly. In her dream, she lives in a medieval town menaced by wolves, with a grandmother who tells her frightful stories about werewolves and warns her to “stay on the path.” One day, she is traveling through the woods to her grandmother’s house, and she meets a dashing older man on the road…
- The film is based on Angela Carter’s three “Little Red Riding Hood”-inspired werewolf stories collected in “The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories.” In 1980 Carter adapted these stories into a radio play titled “The Company of Wolves,” which became the basis for her screenplay collaboration with director Neil Jordan. She published her version of the screenplay, which differs slightly from the filmed version (due to the fact that some sequences proved too costly to shoot) in the collection “The Curious Room.”
- Jordan says that the stories-within-stories structure was inspired by The Saragossa Manuscript (1965).
- Other than the wraparound sequences, the entire movie was filmed on a soundstage.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a movie where men (repeatedly) turn into wolves, it’s surprising that the most startling image occurs in a quiet moment. Rosaleen climbs a tree, finds a stork’s nest, and finds a mirror and a vial of lipstick nestled alongside the eggs. She applies the lipstick, looks in the mirror, and the eggs crack open to reveal tiny human figurines.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Egg babies; wolves at a wedding; Angela Lansbury’s ceramic head
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An adolescent girl is lost in a fever dream inhabited by suave beast men and mysterious symbols that both frighten and thrill her. Angela Carter’s Freudian spin on fairy tales takes the sanitized version of Little Red Riding Hood and gives it fangs.
Original trailer for The Company of Wolves
COMMENTS: Werewolves are some of humanity’s oldest supernatural foils, mentioned in Petronius’ “Satyricon” in the first century A.D. Vampires, who only started popping out of their graves in the 18th century, are relative newbies. Why do we so fear wolves? They rarely attack humans, wisely preferring to avoid us. In medieval times, they were a far greater threat to livestock than to people (although rabid wolves are likelier to attack, and there are horrifying stories of wolves snatching defenseless children for a midnight snack). Still, there is something primally bloodcurdling about their howling, particularly in the dead of night, that arouses terror in us, makeing us want to huddle together around a campfire. After the extinction of the lion in Europe, the wolf became the apex predator (behind humans, naturally). As our chief competitor for meat (which they prefer raw), they came to symbolize all that was wild, barbaric and bloodthirsty—all the qualities that we deny in ourselves.
And yet, these ravening beasts can easily transform into man’s best friend: your obedient pal Fido, who curls up around your feet and begs for table scraps and a scratch behind the ear, is 99% genetically identical to the ravening wolf that stalks the village at night. In fact, wolves and dogs are so nearly identical that most of the wolves you see onscreen in The Company of Wolves are actually Belgian Shepherds. The first character we see in the film is a dog, a hound out exploring in the wild forest who happily races home when he senses his master’s arrival. By the end, that friendly mutt will be transformed into a wolf; a sort of canine version of the werewolf. The Company of Wolves is explicitly framed as Rosaleen’s dream, with items from her real life—her sister’s lipstick, the dolls on her shelf—making transformed cameos in her sleeping fantasy. She imagines herself as Little Red Riding Hood, but the childhood tale of obedience to authority is replaced in her thrashing imagination by a medieval world of hardly understood adult horrors, predominantly represented by wolves and wolf-men. To her subconscious, the family dog suggests a wolf (Rosaleen of the dream village owns no dog, but at one point she cuddles a wounded wolf). The blurry line between dogs and wolves isn’t a major focus of The Company of Wolves’ extensive iconography, but it is a suggestive one; because if, as Freud proposes, “wild animals signify sensually aroused persons, or further, base impulses, passions” in dreams, then we might reason that tame animals signify those same impulses and passions domesticated and incorporated into life in a healthy way.
The Company of Wolves is not, of course, about dogs who becomes wolves, but about men who do. Sexually aggressive men have long been colloquially called “wolves” and said to be “on the prowl.” The Company of Wolves is not shy about making this comparison. When Granny warns Rosaleen to “stay on the path,” she means the path of chastity; when she teaches her that any man may secretly be “hairy on the inside,” she is teaching her to fear and mistrust all men. (In two of the stories, the werewolf is also a bridegroom, so it’s not only strangers women must fear). The sexual imagery in the movie is fascinatingly phallic: during the film’s most startling lycanthrope transformation scene, a wolf’s erect snout pokes it’s way out of a man’s skull. Near the end of the film a wolf crashes through a window (Freud says that windows in dreams represent bodily orifices) and scatters Rosaleen’s collection of children’s dolls. These toothy phalluses are frightening to Rosaleen, but there is also plenty of friendlier female sexual imagery in the film. Granny fashions the red cloak for Rosaleen just at the time in life when she is undergoing her first menstruation, and her discovery of life-giving eggs in a stork’s nest is one of the weirdest symbols of a young girl’s recognition of her own oncoming fertility ever filmed (rivaled onscreen only by the liminal mysteries of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders).
The Company of Wolves includes a series of mini-stories, told from inside a dream. Some people have suggested that this structure may make the movie confusing, though I find it hard to imagine that many people would be frustrated trying to follow it. The nested stories are miniature werewolf tales, more in the nature of horror movies than the rest of the film. The fact that everything in the dream is shot on a soundstage, with painted skies and potted forests, imparts a fairy tale storybook quality to the movie, while the drifting between layers of reality mimics the free association of a dream. Taken together, the tales suggest that wolf and werewolf stories are omnipresent and always secretly about sex: about the transformation of adolescence, or about the sublimated lusts of men who wear genteel clothes but are inwardly beasts preying on women.
Granny’s stories serve to warn the girl about hairy beasts and the evil things they do to young virgins. When Rosaleen herself invents stories about wolves, however, she unconsciously puts a feminist spin on them. Young and independent-minded, Rosaleen adores her Granny, but that does not mean she will be taking her advice about avoiding men. Her final confrontation with the Huntsman is a tense erotic duel—we fear for the girl’s virginity as much as for her life—that completely upends our expectations of how a werewolf story should end. Things aren’t always what they seem; many wolves found it in their best interest to make themselves into dogs, and even little girls may one day find the hairy wolf in themselves. What is feared is also what is desired; our deepest impulses hide themselves in horror. According to The Company of Wolves, it may be the Grandmother, not the wolf, who is the real villain of “Little Red Riding Hood.” The warning may itself be the danger.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The movie has an uncanny, hypnotic force; we always know what is happening, but we rarely know why, or how it connects with anything else, or how we can escape from it, or why it seems to correspond so deeply with our guilts and fears. That is, of course, almost a definition of a nightmare.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“Like the Brothers Grimm, the film makers have attached to the tale of Red Riding Hood a lot of things that would have baffled 18th-century French peasants sitting around the fireside at day’s end. They also baffle me.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Jordan would revisit similar themes with the homoerotic Interview With A Vampire (1994), the ethereal, flawed serial killer movie In Dreams (1999) and The Butcher Boy (1997), a frank exploration of the dark depths of a young boy’s imagination. None of them, however, quite matched the fever pitch of psychosexual weirdness on display here.”–Ian Nathan, Empire (DVD)
IMDB LINK: The Company of Wolves (1984)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Company of Wolves (1984) – Frequently Asked Questions – The IMDB FAQ is thorough and definitely worth a read, although it can get amusingly technical (the commentator attempts to simplify the story for the easily confused by introducing the concept of the “hypo-hypodiegetic narrative level”)
Video: Angela Carter and Neil Jordan Discuss The Company of Wolves – Twenty-minute BBC interview about the film with Carter and Jordan
Mark Kermode reviews The Company of Wolves for BFI Player+ | BFI – Brief video review (more an introduction) from film critic Kermode
The Company of Wolves (film) – TV Tropes page on the film
THE COMPANY OF WOLVES: COMPARING THE STORY, RADIO PLAY AND MOVIE – Essay by comparing the three incarnations of The Company of Wolves
The Bloody Chamber Summary and Analysis of “The Company of Wolves” – A study guide for the original Carter short story of the same name
Neil Jordan and Angela Carter, in conversation – A recording of Carter interviewing Jordan, conducted during their screenplay collaboration; very little about Company of Wolves, but an interesting peek at their working relationship and ideas
Hairy on the Inside: Re-Visiting Neil Jordan’s “The Company of Wolves” – Preview page of an academic article on the film (requires a JSTOR account to read in it’s entirety)
LIST CANDIDATE: THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984) – ‘ original recommendation of the movie for this site
The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories – Angela Carter’s original short story collection containing “The Company of Wolves” and other stories used to create the script
The Curious Room – Collection of Carter scripts including the original draft of The Company of Wolves
HOME VIDEO INFO: The Company of Wolves was released on DVD (buy) by Henstooth Video in 2002. The sound and image are good, but it comes with minimal extras: just a still gallery, the trailer, and a “promo” trailer (probably made for investors or distributors, it’s twelve minutes long and is more a condensation of the film than anything else).
Wolves fared better in region 2 release, where Granada Ventures released a remastered “Special Edition” DVD in 2005 (buy). It has the trailers and stills from the U.S. release but adds a welcome commentary by the director and comes with an essay booklet, to boot.
2009 saw ITV Studios release Wolves on Blu-ray (buy). It reportedly uses the same master as used in the Special Edition release; however, none of the extras are ported over other than the Neil Jordan commentary. It is, however, an all-regions disc, making this the go-to release at present.
Wolves was not available for on-demand streaming at the time of this writing.
2 thoughts on “319. THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)”
Some indie rock trivia: The wolf girl prominently featured in one of the tales (towards the end, if I remember) was played by cult U.K. rock artist Danielle Dax, who was a college radio station favorite in the late 80s with her exotic persona and pan-cultural musical shenanigans. Have I look at this vid – a slideshow of her album cover art with one of her songs that also has a bunch of promo shots of her at the end – often looking so close to the wolf girl she portrayed, it’s no wonder they cast her.
Great film. Very thankful that 366 pointed the way here. I’m not sure if I would’ve seen this without you guys.