Thanks to the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movie franchises, there’s been a resurgence of the fantasy genre in film over the past decade or so. Among them emerged a distinct subgenre telling darker, edgier versions of well-known fairy tales. Just this year we had Oz the Great and Powerful, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and Jack the Giant Killer. Last time these darker fantasy films were this popular was in mid-1980s and recently I saw one of them: Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. Jordan has, throughout his career, made quite a few films dealing with strange and supernatural: beside this one, he also made Interview With a Vampire, Ondine, High Spirits and recently released Byzantium.
The Company of Wolves turned out to be smarter and more challenging then I’ve expected which was refreshing as similar movies today are mostly formulaic cash-ins that substitute cynicism and action for maturity. Based upon a story by Angela Carter, this modern re-imagining of Red Riding Hood fairy-tale has interestingly convoluted structure: it is a series of stories told by characters existing within a nightmare of a present day teenage girl (Sarah Patterson, who also plays Red Riding Hood). Now, telling stories set in dreams does allow for more fantastic elements to come into play without a need to explain them but it also tempts the storyteller into using the crusty old cliché of “it was all just a dream” as a way of ending the plot. Thankfully, The Company of Wolves actually resolves the story before the dream ends.
Within her dream, teenage girl – called Rosaleen – lives in a village surrounded by forest. Exact time and place of the story are uncertain. The forest is dark, fecund and obviously built on a sound stage but this increases our suspension of disbelief instead of lowering it: we’re seeing a kind of forest that a child might imagine. Dreamlike imagery abounds: there are white rabbits, giant mushrooms and snakes crawling everywhere. Through this surreal landscape, Rosaleen’s sister is pursued and killed by wolves who prey upon the villagers and their livestock. Afterwards, Granny (played by Angela Lansbury from Manchurian Candidate and what an inspired choice she is!) warns her remaining granddaughter to never stray from the path in the forest, never eat a windfall fruit and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.
You see, there are two kinds of wolves: those with the hair on the outside and those with the hair on the inside. This other kind is more dangerous: they lurk within forest and hide their beastly self from girls such as Rosaleen while they lure them away from the path. Granny tells a story about an unfortunate woman whose new husband, “a travelling man” turned out to be one such beast. This and her other tales show us that, for a kindly old lady, Granny sure has a morbid hate towards men and women who indulge them. This might explain why she lives alone in the middle of the forest. Also, this film is not really about wolves, is it?
The Company of Wolves is made out of stories that characters use to teach and explain their world to each other. Even a hunter staking a wolf has time to tell a short story. It’s a wonderful and appropriate way to portray characters in a fairy tale. Once Rosaleen starts telling her own tales about wolves and men and wolf men, we see she’s developing a different outlook then her Granny, one built not on fear but on sense of her own growing power, one that allows women to match the beast in men.
I hesitate to say I liked The Company of Wolves: it deals with uncomfortably personal issues in a dark and eerie way. But I believe it to be a good film, a kind of film that a person sees and then rushes to the Internet to find interpretations of its individual scenes or of its ambivalent ending. Such is the curse of the Internet: with all this free information at our fingertips it’s much easier to google the answers then to try and reach them by ourselves. Which would be a shame here. The Company of Wolves set out to tell a allegorical tale using lingering imagery about certain deep fears within us. In this, it succeeded wonderfully.