The Company of Wolves Spins a Grim Take on a Classic Fairy Tale
by Nick Nadel
Neil Jordan’s feminist twist on Little Red Riding Hood is scarily relevant today.
For anyone who discovered The Company of Wolves on VHS during the 1980s, the unsettling image of a wolf bursting from a man’s mouth on the box cover became permanently lodged in the darkest regions of their memories. With its surreal, dreamlike imagery and innovative special effects, director Neil Jordan’s take on Little Red Riding Hood earned a place among the decade’s many stellar werewolf movies. Dig beyond its furry scares, however, and you’ll find a feminist spin on fairy tales that feels bracingly ahead of its time.
Adapted from a short story by Angela Carter (who cowrote the screenplay with Jordan), The Company of Wolves starts, as many fables do, with a modern-day heroine pulled into a dream world. In her dreams, young Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) lives in a fairytale village plagued by wolves. Her sister has been killed by the ferocious beasts, and her grandmother (played with sly wit by the great Angela Lansbury) tells Rosaleen cautionary fables about werewolves that howl at the moon and men whose “eyebrows meet in the middle.” As stories unfold within stories, Rosaleen spins her own tales of women taking control of the narrative and inflicting their own teeth-gnashing vengeance against the men who’ve wronged them.
The morals of these fables are familiar: say on the path, don’t trust tall, dark strangers. The screenplay zeroes in on the evils that men perpetuate on women, whether it’s the kindly new husband (played by Neil Jordan regular Stephen Rea) who becomes a hairy monster by moonlight, or the vain nobleman who gets turned into a literal animal by the village woman he cruelly scorned. Perhaps the most intriguing depiction of the patriarchy comes in the form of the Devil (Terence Stamp) himself, who appears in the woods in a Rolls-Royce to offer a young boy a potion that comes with a terrible price.
Jordan and his team of special effects wizards create an eye-popping world for these twisted tales to play out. The pre-CGI werewolf transformations — brought to life through animatronics and prosthetic makeup — are some of the goriest in a decade filled with memorable wolf-outs in horror classics like An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. (Good luck getting the image of Stephen Rea’s character literally ripping off his face to reveal the monstrous creature underneath out of your nightmares.) Production designer Anton Furst, who would go on to create the Gothic urban nightmare of Tim Burton’s Batman, turned England’s Shepperton Studios into an eerie enchanted forest where horrors lurk around every corner. Only two films into a career that would produce challenging works like Mona Lisa and The Crying Game, Jordan fills the screen with imagery (birds eggs that open to reveal tiny babies, stuffed animals that come to disturbing life) that represent Rosaleen’s transition from girlhood to womanhood.
Released in 1985 amid the decade’s fantasy film boom, The Company of Wolves is far more relevant to our current genre climate than male-driven sword and sorcery fare like Conan the Barbarian and Legend. Offering a mature take on fairy tale tropes before Hollywood drove that concept into the ground, The Company of Wolves is like a dusty tome of dark fairy tales hiding in the back of a bookshelf just waiting to be rediscovered.