From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Films of High Adventure: The Company of Wolves

For a few months now, we (meaning Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer) have been re-watching old fantasy and adventure films that influenced one or both of our respective childhoods and blogging about whether they withstand The Test of Time for us. So far we’ve done, among others, Conan the BarbarianTank Girl, and Vampire Hunter D. Now, on the last Wednesday of each month, we’ll be posting exclusively fantasy-themed “Films of High Adventure” efforts here, on Fantasy Magazine. Last month we tackled Legend; this month we’re celebrating the release of Running with the Pack, Ekaterina Sedia’s new werewolf anthology that contains stories by both of us, by reviewing a werewolf film! Yay!

Film: The Company of Wolves (1984)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Angela Carter, Angela Carter, and Angela Carter. Also: Angela Carter. Oh, and Neil Jordan—lots of Neil Jordan. Carter co-wrote the script with Jordan based, loosely, on a few of the stories in The Bloody Chamber, and Jordan directed, long before he made Interview with the Vampire, The Crying Game, or that early, unsuccessful attempt to revive Robert Downy Jr.’s career known as In Dreams. Often good, occasionally weird soundtrack by George Fenton, who also scored The Fisher King and Dangerous Liaisons (the really juicy one with Glenn Close and a pre-I’ll-do-anything-and-I-do-mean-anything-for-a-paycheck John Malkovich). The cast is led by newcomer Sarah Patterson, who never really did anything else, and anchored by Angela Lansbury’s crazy ass in full-on spinster mode. We’ve also got Tusse Silberg (Orson Welles’s mom in RKO 281), Micha Bergese (not much else, either), David Warner (the bad guy in everything from the 80s, particularly Time Bandits and Tron), Stephen Rea (a longtime Jordan collaborator, best known stateside for V for Vendetta), and Terrence Stamp (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, who allegedly did the film in exchange for Jordan buying him a snazzy new suit).

Quote: “Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.”

Alternate quote: “Now, as then, it’s simple truth—sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.”

First viewing by Jesse: The summer between fourth and fifth grade, I believe. So. . . ten years old.

First viewing by Molly: 2007, shortly after Jesse and I became friends/discussed our mutual affection for Angela Carter.

Most recent viewing by both: Last Week.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: High. I became obsessed with werewolves around the time I was cut from the umbilical, and my passion for films featuring them (werewolves, not umbilical cords) was stymied only by my parents’ occasional—and incredibly unreasonable—refusal to allow their young child rent such innocuous films as The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf or The Howling III: The Marsupials. My mom had seen The Company of Wolves before and when I brought her the irresistible box, her denial of the choice a foregone conclusion, she surprised me by allowing the selection to stand. Perhaps she imagined the rampant and absolute weirdness of the movie would turn me off from the subject, or perhaps she thought anything was better than marsupial werewolves dressed up as nuns, but the end result was the same—ten year old Jesse’s introduction to Angela Carter’s beautiful, beautiful brain.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: The Company of Wolves film, nonexistent. “The Company of Wolves” from The Bloody Chamber, high. I read The Bloody Chamber in 6th grade and it messed with my mind hardcore, raised as I was on Disney versions of fairy tales. Even then, however, I had a penchant for the fucked-up and the macabre, and thus as much as I was mildly disliked/was made uncomfortable by/was baffled by the purple prose and general weirdness, I was down with the themes. Good times.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:


Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: A little wary, not because I was worried about whether or not it would hold up—I knew it did, at least as well as a bizzaro experimental werewolf movie from the eighties can—but because I had re-watched it fairly recently and didn’t want to give myself mental sunburn from overexposure. That said I knew it couldn’t inflict the kind of damage a Red Sonja or a Conan the Destroyer can deal upon the brain and heart in a single viewing, and I knew I would have the cool aloe balm of Molly’s commentary to ease matters if they grew dire on the shores of Fantasy Beach. I know, I know, this should have been a needlessly complex and convoluted metaphor about the moon instead of the sun, but I just couldn’t find a way to make it work. You know, like how this paragraph totally works? Right.

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I was apprehensive on a number of levels. I remember liking the concept of the film more than the film itself, but enough time had passed that I hoped I was mistaken, and perhaps I’d enjoyed it more than I remembered.  I was also nervous because the last time I watched it I genuinely hurt Jesse’s feelings (Jesse says: balderdash, my hide is made of iron!) by openly gigglesnorting at several things in the film, including (but not limited to) the opening with all the terrifying dolls, the unapologetic use of German shepherds instead of wolves in many scenes, and the part where Rosaleen is tempted by the noble werewolf and it cuts away to show a white rose filling with blood. Thanks, Angela. You’re the best. I also remember outright detesting the kid vying for the affections of Rosaleen—you know, the kid so important he’s credited as “Amorous Boy.”

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: First off, I’ve never seen this on dvd before and the effect was disconcerting—was this actually shot on video, a fact hidden by the blurriness of the vhs transfers I’d previously seen? Or was the speed the slightest bit off, making everything look so damn peculiar? I have no idea, but the bottom line is that watching it on dvd actually detracted from the experience—a first for me, I think.

So, the movie itself: win, win, win. Weird, weird, weird. In interviews Jordan has discussed how he and Carter didn’t write it so that everything made sense, with a lot of the strangeness there for the sole purpose of being strange. This element really works for me, adding to the dream-like quality of the film and leaving a lot up to the individual viewer’s interpretation, but if one goes into it expecting a horror film they’re liable to be gravely disappointed.

Except for the transformation sequences, that is. Fuck and shit, I love me some practical effects, and will take a 25+ year old beast-out over a modern CGI one any day of the week. As with An American Werewolf in London (whose chess-playing pub patron Brian Glover puts in time here as Amorous Boy’s Father), they were doing a whole helluva lot with a little, and unlike a lot of werewolf movies the transformations here are both plentiful and highly varied. Check out Stephen Rea’s decidedly NSFW transformation, which manages to be effective despite its often obvious fakeness:

Jesus, right?! And that isn’t even the best one, though it’s close. Old school effects warm my unibrow, yes they do.

There’s a lot of gripes one could raise with the film but I say to hell with that—The Company of Wolves is truly unlike any other werewolf film out there, and if its ambition occasionally surpasses its abilities, well, at least it has ambition. Atmospheric, self-indulgent, meandering, clever, crazed, warty, and unique filmmaking of a kind we don’t see enough of anymore. And unlike last week’s entry, the amorous wolf is appropriately amorous.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: On many levels agree with Jeff VanderMeer’s assertion that The Company of Wolves is “perhaps the only intelligent werewolf movie ever made,” (though parts of Ginger Snaps come close to the savvyness of Company), but as a cinematic exercise, I can’t wholeheartedly love this film. I think less of myself for writing that, but there it is. I. . . I just have a severe problem with things that just don’t make a lick of sense, and The Company of Wolves at many points. . . well. I really appreciate and enjoy perhaps eighty percent of this film, and enjoy/am amused by an additional ten percent, there’s definitely parts that are just. . . huh? What? Why? O RLY? Let’s just take a look at the latter half of this clip:

Awesome? Sure. Huh? Yeah. But to be honest, I’m coming down from a long night of morphine, CAT scans, and having my blood drawn in the ER (nothing more serious than a bite acquired whilst battling some local zombies in a Boulder graveyard with a silver cross and Hendrick’s bottle I’d filled with holy water), and I’d rather talk about what’s awesome about The Company of Wolves, which is, honestly, damn near everything. Though I question the film’s use of the ol’ “framing device that frames another framing device” a la Frankenstein, I don’t mind it once it gets moving, because the inset stories are what makes the film for me. Even though the story of the pregnant witchwoman who turns the wedding party into wolves is just batshit-weird and inexplicable, I really appreciate powdered wigs and tittering nobles and I love any scene in a film where a pregnant girl points a finger accusingly at a man who done her wrong. I also really like the ending of the secondary framing device (the end of the film itself for me was just as huh? for me as the first go-round) with the aforementioned Rosaleen and the noble werewolf, for the sheer uhhhhh value of watching the then 12-years-old actress being letched on hardcore and then turn into a wolf and run away from her family, much to everyone’s general distress.

What it comes down to for me is that I just wish that The Company of Wolves was an adaptation of, say, “Wolf-Alice” from The Bloody Chamber, which is one of my all time favorite short stories. There’s just so much going on, and sometimes it feels crammed and overwhelmed, which might be the point re: childhood or something—I’m not feeling particularly esoteric right now, truth be told, what with the shivershakes from morphine come-down—but it doesn’t fully work for me. Nor does it displease me, either. For all its faults, The Company of Wolves had (according to Wikipedia) a budget of two million dollars. Contrast that with the thirty million dollar budget of the last film we did for Fantasy, Legend,  which appeared only a year later. . . and The Company of Wolves comes out ahead in just about every category. It feels “fuller” as a film—I mean, there’s a village, unlike the unpopulated. . . kingdom? Duchy? Who cares? of Legend. Also, my affection for Company is based on more than a lone good scene. Also, for all its OMGWTFBBQ moments, Company makes more sense on a grander scale than Legend. . . which isn’t saying much, but it’s saying something.

Anyhow, yay for The Company of Wolves, which got made! Yay for Angela Carter for being so goddamn awesome! And yay for Video Station in Boulder,  CO that had Company on DVD!

High Points: The sets. The costumes. The good effects. The bad effects. Angela Lansbury’s head getting knocked off and becoming a porcelain doll’s head full of milk. Angela Carter’s flourishes. Neil Jordan’s flourishes. The nonsensical weirdness. The unintentional silliness. The German shepherds. The general whiskey tango foxtrot of it all. Molly must add: the white rose filling with bloooooooood.

Final Verdict: The best art film/werewolf picture hybrid of all time. Because there’s more than one?

Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the upcoming The Enterprise of Death, and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ChiZine, Brain Harvest, Jabberwocky, and several anthologies, including Running with the Pack and The Best of All Flesh. He lives in Colorado and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.
Molly Tanzer is the Assistant Editor of Fantasy Magazine. Her nonfiction has appeared in Herbivore Magazine, and her short story “In Sheep’s Clothing” is forthcoming in Running with the Pack. You are welcome to visit her any time over at her blog.

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5 Responses »

  1. Oh my God. First video: boy nipple, puberty, sideways mouth. I must watch this.

  2. I remember going to see this at the theater with my younger sister when we were both in high school. Still one of my all time odd movie favorites! My sister even played a bit of a violin solo derived from the wedding scene music when she did her auditions for college (I had bought the LP soundtrack because we both liked the music so much). Good times! :)

  3. Very cool story, Tanja! I’d love to pick up the soundtrack, should probably look into that…

  4. I didn’t post when you put this up, but I actually did an analysis (brief) of the radio play, story and film (http://www.innsmouthfreepress.com/?p=4903).

    I never minded the surrealist bits that don’t make sense. Fairy tales are like that. Weird and random at times.

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