(1984) Directed by Neil Jordan; Written by Angela Carter and Neil Jordan; Based on a story by Angela Carter; Starring: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Stephen Rea and Micha Bergese; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime
“The one thing we did not want…for it to be logical in a linear way, which might have caused problems for some people, but I wanted some surreal elements that kind of come from nowhere, because the story is structured around a young girl’s dream, and I wanted elements that were as unexpected as things that happen in a dream; this strange reality that didn’t actually have to be symbolic of anything…” – Neil Jordan (from DVD commentary)
I’m honored to contribute to the Adoring Angela LansburyBlogathon, celebrating the marvelously enduring actress and her many contributions to cinema, stage and TV. Thanks to host Gill Jacob from RealWeegieMidget Reviews for the invite, and for hosting another exceptional blogathon. The guest of honor, Ms. Lansbury, reminds us it’s not the screen time that counts, but what you do with it. Her relatively sparse appearance in The Company of Wolves belies the impact her character has in the film.
In a thematic shift from his first film, director/co-writer Neil Jordan’s second directorial effort (working from a story by Angela Carter, who also co-wrote the screenplay) delves into the realm of fairy tales and fantasy, steeped in psychosexual imagery. Jordan cited several key influences for the film, including Grimm’s fairy tales, the artwork of French illustrator Gustave Doré, German expressionism, and Corman’s “Poe Cycle” of films. Anton Furst’s (Full Metal Jacket, Batman) lush art design and animatronic effects by Christopher Tucker (The Elephant Man) enhances this modestly budgeted film.
Jordan described The Company of Wolves’ story structure as a “Chinese box,” comprised of stories within stories. Most of the film is set in 18th century rural England, bracketed by a framing story set in the 20th century. As we enter the alternate dreamlike fairytale world, a porcelain Granny doll and stuffed animals spring to life. Our modern-day upper-middle-class protagonist, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) endures rites of passage, and learns about the true nature of men, as relayed by Granny, now flesh and blood (Angela Lansbury).
We’re introduced to various aspects of fairytale lore, such as never trusting a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle. Granny admonishes Rosaleen not to stray from the path, lest she succumb to some unspecified calamity. For her, the path is the straight and narrow, a virtuous road that’s only becomes corrupted by wolves and her indiscretion. Shots of frogs throughout the film appear to signify harbingers of some fantastical transgression. In one scene, Rosaleen climbs a tree and encounters a nest. Inside the nest she finds bright red lipstick (evocative of blood and lust) and eggs that hatch to reveal baby dolls (fertility). The wolves* (a combination of real wolves, dogs and animatronics) featured throughout the film linger in the shadowy woods, a constant reminder of the dangers that await her if she dares to venture away from the acceptable route. Eventually, curiosity prevails over Rosaleen’s fear of her budding sexuality. The film suggests it’s the natural order of things for adolescents to discover their sexuality. Part of their rite of passage is to embrace or deny that inherent aspect of growing up. Despite all admonitions and cautions, it’s a natural, inevitable process, and a personal journey.
* Not-So-Fun Fact: According to Jordan’s DVD commentary, the filmmakers originally secured four wolves for the project, but only ended up with two for the shoot. In one instance, one wolf ate the other.
Angela Lansbury, Jordan explained, brought a duality to the role of Granny, displaying nurturing and motherly aspects, but also presenting a darker side. She warns Rosaleen about the hidden dangers of men (“The worst kind of wolves are hairy on the inside, and when they bite you, they drag you with them to hell.”). Only Lansbury could make requesting a kiss on the cheek seem simultaneously innocent and sinister as she spins her cautionary tales. The stories build to a climactic retelling of the classic Little Red Riding Hood fable. It should be no surprise concerning Granny’s eventual fate, but it’s handled in a way that reminds us everything’s in a dream world with its own set of rules and logic.
Jordan hired a combination of veteran actors and novices for some key roles. First-timer Sarah Patterson stars as Rosaleen and dancer Micha Bergese as the Huntsman (a wolf in man’s clothing), was chosen for the physicality he could bring to the role. The film featured seasoned actors as well, including David Warner * as Rosaleen’s father, and a fun little cameo by Terence Stamp as The Devil,** who appears (in an anachronistic, 20th century turn) in a white Rolls Royce.
* Interesting (but not particularly fun) Fact: David Warner suffered an accident in which both legs were broken, making it difficult to walk and stand for long periods of time. As a result, Jordan incorporated many opportunities for the actor to sit or lean on the set pieces, such as chairs, tables and a bed.
** Fun Fact: The filmmakers originally wanted Andy Warhol for the satanic role. Although Warhol was reportedly interested in performing it, a recent assassination attempt left him afraid of travel, and he insisted on shooting his part in New York City.
The Company of Wolves was marketed in the U.S. by Cannon films as a horror movie, rather than the dark, surrealistic fantasy that it was. Baffled American audiences probably didn’t know what hit them when they watched it during its theatrical run. The perceived bait and switch seems to persist to this day, but if you think more Labyrinth and less The Howling, you’ll do fine. Its trancelike properties, purposeful ambiguity and leisurely pace might put some folks off, but it promises to reward and challenge on multiple viewings.