The Company of Wolves (Special Edition) Review
Horror films traditionally thrive on two, usually inter-related, features: blood and shocks. Though it was marketed in America as a gruesome farrago of gore, werewolves and sexual intrigue, The Company of Wolves couldn’t be farther removed from the lycanthropic horror-comedies of the early ‘80s (notably The Howling and American Werewolf in London). A dreamy and fantastical reworking of Little Red Riding Hood, director (and sometime author) Neil Jordan exercises his trademark visual panache to create a surrealistic – and, on occasion, explicitly violent – exploration of burgeoning female sexuality and the fear and physical discomfiture that accompanies it. Imagine the philosophies of a Catherine Breillat film as transmitted through the beguiling aesthetics of David Lynch (with the occasional gruesome Dario Argento flourish) and you’ll have a relatively accurate impression of the film’s artistry. In spite of its pervasive symbolism and metaphor, The Company of Wolves still functions ably as a delirious mixture of fantasy and horror: taking the fables of the Brothers Grimm and magnifying and embellishing their darker undertones. For the adventurous, The Company of Wolves makes for rewardingly esoteric viewing.
The film is essentially an amalgam of several of Angela Carter’s short stories, taken from her collection ‘The Bloody Chamber’, which reinterpreted various fairytales with a decidedly feminist and overtly sexual twist. The film begins in the 20th Century as a husband and wife return to their country manor. Whilst their older daughter enthusiastically welcomes them, their younger child Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) remains wilfully asleep in her bedroom. Moments later we enter the dream world of Rosaleen: a magical forest whose human population uneasily coexists with the numerous wolves that inhabit the woodland’s more secluded areas. After her sister is mauled to death by a pack of wolves, Rosaleen is regaled with a variety of grisly stories about werewolves by her grandmother (Angela Lansbury). Though there is solid backbone to the narrative, the film often digresses into stories within stories, many of which are both elliptical in style and genuinely creepy in content. The justification for this apparent diffuseness in storytelling is that we know from the outset that what we are seeing are illusory representations of Rosaleen’s uneasiness about the encroachment of adolescence, rather than entirely cohesive, self-contained stories (although many of them also work on this level).
The numerous stories that are told generally involve a man-cum-wolf in some manner attempting to harm a woman. The plot builds towards Rosaleen’s own encounter with an impressively dapper werewolf, who seems far more intent on kissing her than eating her, but along the way we discover the origins of the werewolf and the signs by which we may recognise one. The werewolf appears to be a symbol of both predatory masculinity and sexual voraciousness; a notion the grandmother tirelessly reiterates to Rosaleen in an effort to inculcate a fear of men in her. And it’s herein that we find an added layer of complexity. The Company of Wolves is far from merely being a vindictive feminist fantasy that bludgeons the audience with the hugely simplistic thesis that man = animals: as the film progresses the wolf becomes, if anything, a figure of impotence – as much worthy of pity as it is of fear. Rosaleen may - in full Little Red Riding Hood apparel - aim a shotgun at the wolf but she tellingly doesn’t fire, preferring to commiserate than to persecute. Indeed, the grandmother certainly isn’t a paradigm of maternal sagacity: if anything she is an inhibitory force, unreasonably trying to prevent Rosaleen from surrendering to puberty by keeping her from the company of boys of her own age.
If the film is beginning to sound threateningly like a seminar on allegorical weirdness (I haven’t even touched upon the recurring motifs of phallocry and menstruation), I hasten to point out that above the subtext rests a very engaging cross-breed of imaginative horror and twisted fairytale. Whilst unlikely to make you leap with terror, it can’t be denied that the many of the stories are highly effective, in spite of the constrictions of a limited budget and outmoded special effects. When Stephen Rea unveils his inner-wolf by quite literally tearing off his face, a great deal of self-discipline will be required to keep yourself from wincing. Another, almost sublimely disquieting, episode involves a very strange encounter with the devil (played here by the gauntly suave Terence Stamp). Featuring the anachronistic presence of a white Rolls Royce and a pretty blonde chauffer (acted by Patterson, again) the scene is indescribably sinister, and though it bears practically no relevance to the plot it’s among the films most unforgettable moments. As is the case with films that follow a particularly dreamlike narrative, it’s often necessary to surrender to the illogical beauty of the film’s more befuddling passages, and put rationality to one side. Symbolism excepted, there’s little obvious reason for Rosaleen to find a nest where the eggs hatch little statues of babies and yet it’s very in keeping with the film's prevailing tone of ambiguity.
On a more prosaic level, the acting is pretty good too. It’s become something of a trend for every new Neil Jordan film to reveal an unknown talent, among them Cathy Tyson in Mona Lisa, Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game and Nutsa Kukhianidze, who was the only good thing in the otherwise dismal The Good Thief. Sarah Patterson’s debut performance is at times a little wooden (although to be fair she was only twelve years old at the time) but her ineffable English beauty and distracted intonations do add to the otherworldliness of the film. Lansbury, the film’s only truly well-known actress, is believably fastidious and grumpy, but it’s the direction of Neil Jordan that deserves the lion’s share of the plaudits. Like all the best directors Jordan’s films are fiercely individualistic, not easily related to other cinematic works except those in his own filmography, and here he provides a virtuoso demonstration of his remarkable skill: ably creating a fantasy world whilst never overstating its unreality. Jordan’s best films reflect the exhilarating ridiculousness of life and the dazzlingly strange way in which it plays out, confounding our expectations at every turn. Some of these films are grounded in an entirely plausible milieu (The Crying Game, Mona Lisa and The Miracle), but here he lets the fantastical elements that shimmer beneath the gritty veneer of those films launch themselves to the surface in a weirdly fascinating bravura display of his ingenuity and distinctive command of the medium.
Although The Company of Wolves has been available for years on DVD in the USA, France, Spain and Germany (to name but a few) it has only recently been released in the UK. Though it’s debatable as to whether it warrants the title of ‘Special Edition’, Granada Venture’s DVD is nonetheless almost certainly the best version currently available and, thanks to an excellent audio commentary, a must have for fans of the film. The disc is presented in a beautifully designed steel-book and comes with an uncomplicated, but effective, animated menu.
I do, however, have some qualms about the disc. The film is presented anamorphically in a 16:9 ratio (which roughly equates to 1.85:1, I believe: although according to IMDB the correct aspect ratio is 1.66:1) and for the most part the image is very good. Aspect ratio concerns aside the box lists the film as having been digitally re-mastered; however, in places the image really does look quite worn and damaged. The opening credits sequence looks fairly ropey, and some of the film’s particularly wide shots also suffer from an excessive graininess and an odd ‘flickering’ (the clearest example of this being when Rosaleen is standing at the top of the tree and we get a panoramic glimpse of the forest). The picture is quite grainy and there are infrequent spots of print damage but in general the image is sharp and the colours are well-defined, doing justice to this visually extraordinary film.
I suspect that this is the best video presentation of the film yet. The R1 transfer was non-anamorphic and reportedly very mediocre. The Spanish DVD was also non-anamorphic and if these image captures are anything to go by, equally uninspiring. The German DVD – despite ostensibly being re-mastered – fared just as badly. The French DVD (a review can be found here: it’s in French but the image captures are useful) was a little better, but despite being anamorphic it suffered from what appears to be some kind of artificial brightening which resulted in the image’s rather dull colours. Supposedly there is quite a good Italian DVD but I’ve no information on it. Though there’s clearly room for improvement, I suspect the UK DVD has the most faithful presentation of the film’s colour scheme and is also the most technically sound version in existence.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Surround: it’s clear, there’s no crackle or hiss and it renders George Fenton’s brilliant musical score excellently. Given that this was the soundtrack’s original mix I’m not too disappointed at the lack of a beefed up 5.1 remix. For those who think otherwise, the German and French DVDs both include 5.1 audio tracks.
Despite the ‘Special Edition’ tag there’s only one extra feature of any real substance (fortunately it’s a good one): Neil Jordan’s audio commentary. Elsewhere on the disc there’s a trailer, which attempts to portray the film as an out-and-out horror flick by showing all the nasty bits, and a gallery of about thirty stills from the film. There is also a booklet (or ‘Behind the Scenes Dossier’ to be precise) included in the package, though since it didn’t come with my review copy I’m unable to pass judgement on its quality.
The commentary, however, is the real treat. Jordan is typically laconic but almost always engaging, and the fact that there is an interviewer to pose questions ensures that there are very few lapses into silence. Among the information gleaned is an account of Sarah Patterson’s near fatal interview on daytime TV (the TV producers thought it would be an interesting gimmick to have one of the wolves sitting next to her – go figure) and how they came very close to casting Andy Warhol as the devil. Those yearning for a little clarity about the film’s motifs and subliminal themes will also be pleased: Jordan is particularly helpful about the film’s rather bewildering final stages. All in all this is an excellent commentary.
I’ve little left to say about this film. Neil Jordan has done better but this is still an excellent piece of filmmaking, complex, beautiful and ultimately hugely compelling. It doesn’t adhere to the traditional precepts of horror cinema and it’s all the better for it. The DVD is a worthwhile purchase; both for the improved picture quality and the presence of one of the best audio commentaries I’ve recently had the pleasure of hearing.
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
4 out of 10