What’s it about?
A blend of horror, fantasy and coming-of-age drama, The Company of Wolves fuses werewolf mythology and the fairytale of Red Riding Hood in a Chinese-box structure of stories within stories that switch between dreams and reality. While Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), a girl on the cusp of adulthood, sleeps in her bedroom, we enter into her mind. Her deepest, darkest thoughts involve a village and wild woods where her granny tells her tall tales about hungry wolves ready to pounce if she dares to “stray from the path”.
Are those real wolves?
Yes and no. There were only 2 wolves on set. The rest of the pack is made up of dogs such as malamutes. In one close-up scene, Rosaleen is seen frolicking with a real wolf. Though it looks like it’s free to roam, off camera on one side is a person holding it by a chain and on the other a marksman ready to shoot in case things go wrong. Thankfully, no wolves were harmed in the making of this film.
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Are there any digital effects in those transformation scenes?
Not one. The impressive werewolf mutations were done using a blend of animatronics, practical effects and the make-up work of Christopher Tucker. Wolves emerge from open orifices amid throbbing muscle and bloody sinew with grisly aplomb. In a story about violent jealousy, actor Stephen Rea is shown with glowing lupine eyes just before he rips the skin off his face and turns into the beast. The only digital effect appears in one outdoor shot where the sky has been altered.
Who’s behind all this?
Stephen Woolley, the man at the helm of London’s legendary Scala Cinema, turned film producer alongside Nik Powell and Chris Brown, and it was directed by Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, who’d recently made his debut with the gangland drama Angel (1982). The Company of Wolves was the first film produced by Palace Pictures and led to a continued working relationship between Woolley and Jordan, who went on to make London mobster classic Mona Lisa (1986) and the Oscar-winning thriller The Crying Game (1992) together.
Where did the idea come from?
Trailblazing author Angela Carter co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan. It was based on 3 short stories from her subversive fairytale collection The Bloody Chamber and her radical radio play The Company of Wolves. The book’s reworking of stereotypical heterosexual fears and desire with rich symbolism and Freudian references is reflected in the intoxicating visuals of the film version.
Who will I recognise?
Stephen Rea is a regular in Jordan’s films, but the most famous of the leads is Murder She Wrote’s Dame Angela Lansbury, who plays Rosaleen’s granny. She spends most of the film knitting her granddaughter a cape from a giant ball of red yarn, and warning her off men and marriage. There’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Terence Stamp as the devil and you may also recognise Danielle Dax from post-punk band Lemon Kittens in the non-speaking role of a wolf-girl.
Were there any other big talents behind the camera?
The late Anton Furst acted as production designer on this majority studio-based feature. His ingenuity on a small budget led to the creation of a treacherous, fairytale forest where the limited selection of handmade trees were placed on rollers that could turn to depict the changing seasons. It acted as a great calling card for Furst, bringing his talents to the attention of some big name directors. Following the film, he was called to work on Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).
How does it hold up now?
The gruesome practical effects may seem dated in the age of CGI, but the level of craft involved is still a marvel to behold. The burgeoning sexuality of a teenage girl is handled with potent visuals and a wickedly dark sense of humour. It may feel less provocative today, but the film still has valuable things to say about the social control of women through their sex lives.
Does it have any famous fans?
Novelist Anne Rice referenced The Company of Wolves in the fourth of her The Vampire Chronicles series, The Tale of the Body Thief, as Lestat de Lioncourt’s favourite film. Interestingly, Jordan went on to direct the big-screen adaptation of Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1994).
What should I watch after this?
Carter herself described The Company of Wolves as a “menstrual film” and the horror genre has plenty of subsequent examples of films that parallel young women’s hormonal changes and awakening sexual appetites with werewolf mythology or cannibalistic tendencies. Films such as Ginger Snaps (2000), Jennifer’s Body (2009) and Raw (2016) depict that same curiosity and unapologetic thirst for flesh that the teenage Rosaleen grapples with in Jordan’s film.