Saturday, October 23, 2010

30 Days of Fright - 22: The Company Of Wolves

Sometimes I get a little carried away with these little reviews and they end up not so little. This is going to be one of those occasions, so as this is a heinously long review full of big words (like "heinously") there'll be no preamble. Except this bit, of course.

Starting off in the real world, The Company of Wolves (1984) is about a young girl called Rosaleen (Sarah “first movie” Patterson) who is a little sleepy head. Her parents have arrived home to find her older sister Alice (Georgia “Emmerdale” Slowe) giving out about how Rosaleen is sulking in her room. Alice heads upstairs to give Rosaleen a piece of her mind by banging on her bedroom door. However, Rosaleen is passed out asleep and is well off into dreamy dreamland.

In the dream world, Alice is chased through a forest by life-sized teddy bears and other toys who drive her towards a waiting pack of wolves that make short work of devouring her. At Alice’s funeral we see that Rosaleen and her parents (David The Omen" Warner and Tusse “Never heard tell of her” Silberg) live in a village in the forest, in a kind of fairytale version of peasant life in the eighteenth century. Rosaleen’s mother is distraught by the death of her eldest daughter so Rosaleen goes to spend the night with her granny (Angela “Murder, She Wrote” Lansbury), who is making a bright red shawl with a hood for her.

Granny is of the old school when it comes to child care, so she feels her role is to tell the brutal truth about how Alice was so brilliant and then scare the piss out of Rosaleen with some sinister stories of love, moderate eroticism, and werewolves. The action then moves into the stories Granny tells, with the first one about a young newlywed couple where the monobrowed groom has a dirty secret about his true nature. Granny’s next story is about a young man walking through the woods alone who has an encounter with the Devil who gives him a potion that causes a terrible transformation.

The next day, Rosaleen heads home to the village and there she has to deal with a neighbour of hers that fancies her and wants to court her. After Mass the next Sunday, Rosaleen and the boy go for their walk where they encounter some wolves. The men from the village go hunting for the wolves and manage to kill one in a trap they’ve set, but when they chop it up a bit, the pieces transform into human body parts.

Rosaleen tells a story of her own to her mother about a wedding that is disrupted by the pregnant ex of the groom who happens to be a witch, a story that disturbs her mother quite a bit. With the werewolf killed, Rosaleen is sent to her granny’s house with some food and drink in a basket. Along the way she meets a charming hunter, a hunter whose eyebrows meet in the middle...

Jessica Fletcher liked to hang out at the Cabot Cove cemetery - it was how she kept track of her victims!

The Company of Wolves is a slightly confusing but incredibly entertaining trip into the dark parts of the enchanted forests where so many children’s fairytales are set. At its core, The Company of Wolves is a simple collection of werewolf stories told against a backdrop of a village where these stories are a part of the inhabitant’s daily lives, but there is so much more going on that it would be wrong to dismiss the film as merely a grown-up retelling of Red Riding Hood.

The Company of Wolves took the original idea of those fairytales, each of which in their original forms had a powerful moral explicitly stated at the end, and made that moral the central focus of the film. Granny’s character is introduced so that she can pass along the wisdom of her years to young Rosaleen, and she does this in the form of her stories that start off with the familiar “Once Upon a Time”, but that quickly veer off into the adult grade warnings that they were meant to be. The creature of the werewolf provides an easy mechanism for Granny to explain concepts like a person being deceitful or hiding their true nature from those around them, or more mature themes like how puberty changes a person as they go through adolescence or even how sexuality plays its role in relationships. Granny is, like any older member of a family, concerned for her young female relative, facing a world filled with dangers and delights that are all too often hard to tell apart.

For her part, Rosaleen is the wide-eyed teenager who hears the warnings in the stories and is enamoured by them as opposed to being afraid. Her courage, which she displays a few times in the film, could be born from inexperience of the wider world but is more likely down to her being excited by the danger and attracted to things her elders warned her about. The loss of her sister is a terribly traumatic event for her parents, but for her it delivers freedom and attention that she obviously longed for in her “perfect” sister’s shadow. The fact that the wolves delivered this life altering event makes her all too open to a similar fate, if she doesn’t heed the warnings in the stories.

These elements make The Company of Wolves a nearly perfect horror film. The central character is presented with everything she needs to deal with the monsters lurking around her, all she has to do is choose to deal with them in a positive way, as long as she isn’t seduced by those dark forces, both literally and metaphorically.

The Company of Wolves is a metaphor-centric movie, with more symbolism than a Dan Brown novel (though infinitely more subtle), but some are probably a little too subtle and will leave a viewer scratching their heads trying to figure what was meant. In a way this is a good thing as it’s nice when a movie makes you think, but during the viewing there were times when I was screaming “What the fuck?!” at the screen.

The strong roles of metaphor and the associated symbolism makes The Company of Wolves a deeply atmospheric film, and it’s one of only a handful of films that create that dark and sinister fairy tale atmosphere that audiences like me long for but rarely see. I feel that if this film had been made more recently it would not work as well. If you look at a film like Van Helsing that seriously missed a trick in the way it did the gothic setting, with scenes that were made to look too realistic, where every village is muddy and wet, all the colours are drab and washed out, you’ll see the exact opposite approach to the 1980’s fantasy type film-making. While the setting is quite dark in The Company of Wolves, there are colourful characters and and the forest the village is in the middle of is magical. Tim Burton is the only other director you’d expect to be able to do an “enchanted forest” type movie, though I don’t think any offering presented now could capture the qualities presented by those types of films from the 80’s – movies like Legend, and Excalibur.

On the acting side some of the performances were a little stiff, but Sarah Patterson as Rosaleen was good and David Warner as the dad was fucking excellent! I’m not sure if I liked Angela Lansbury as the Granny. Sometimes she was perfect and sometimes she was shite. Some of her facial expressions just weren’t quite right for some of the scenes, but on the whole she passed as the nice little old lady with the best scary stories for the grandkids.

As it’s a Neill Jordan film you can already see the development of the style that would feature so heavily and so well in Interview with the Vampire coming through in The Company of Wolves. Gothic horror is something he is rather good at and his approach will hopefully lead others to emulate his style.

There were a couple of highlights that need mentioning. The transformation scene where Stephen Rea goes Lycanthropic was amazing, the process looked like it was beyond painful and was more like the Hell on Earth type experience I imagine it would have to be. The scene where he meets his ultimate fate in the movie is a work of art!

The second scene I thoroughly enjoyed was the bit where Rosaleen’s father hits the young lad a few slaps, as it’s fucking priceless – her Dad employs a “no messing” policy when he sees the boy has come back without her as he goes straight in and hits him a punch to the gut as he’s asking what happened – no waiting for an explanation or any of that shite; that boy was getting a hiding just for living. It’s as if the father character had been waiting for years to hit that boy and he really wasn’t going to miss the opportunity once it presented itself. First rate cinema violence – a grown man knocking the snot out of a kid half his size!

Two Thumbs Up for The Company of Wolves

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