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THE COMPANY OF WOLVES ****
BOOK REVIEW - THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (DEVIL’S ADVOCATES)
Written by James Gracey. 120 pp. RRP : £9.99. Out Now from Auteur Publishing.
The early 80’s saw a mini-boom of werewolf movies reflecting the revolutionary advances in transformative make-up effects, which ensured that David Naughton did not have to disappear behind a conveniently placed desk while morphing into AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. The John Landis movie and Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING brought a substantial degree of self-awareness and knockabout character-based humour to the sub-genre and have endured as modern horror classics. Other wolfman movies from the same period have enjoyed less latter-day attention, including Michael Wadleigh’s flawed but fascinating WOLFEN and Neil Jordan’s well-reviewed THE COMPANY OF WOLVES.
James Gracey’s absorbing, superbly researched Devil’s Advocates monograph on the 1984 British film initially positions it in the context of this cycle, and in the oeuvre of director Neil Jordan, who has displayed a career-long fascination with Gothic and fairy-tale themes : his divisive adaptation of Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE has proved by far his most commercially successful foray into the genre, though the underrated IN DREAMS and BYZANTIUM are arguably more interesting as films. Most valuably, Gracey considers the cinematic Company of Wolves in conjunction with Angela Carter’s body of work and varied influences, discussing her notable love of cinema (including Hammer horror), and finding recurring themes of female sexuality and classical fairy tales.
It’s astonishing to think that Carter died – tragically young, at 51 – almost 30 years ago, and this thorough analysis of the film, its origins and its legacy serves as a fine tribute to her work. Carter disliked the subtext of fairy tales that served as thinly veiled warnings for young women to avoid exploring their own sexuality, finding such a message anachronistic and worthy of reinterpretation from her feminist, socialist perspective. While Jordan found a marvellously sinister side to veteran actress Angela Lansbury in casting the role, Carter hadcrafted a humorous alter ego of herself in “Granny”, the storyteller who relishes the tales she is supposed to be declaring forbidden.
Fans of the film will appreciate the specific insights into its production, from a very amusing account of Jordan’s first meeting with Carter to the difficulties of getting such an unclassifiable film funded – with Channel 4 among those rejecting it as “vulgar” and the fledgling Palace Pictures the studio brave enough to take it on. The importance of production designer Anton Furst – himself enroute to the big time thanks to Tim Burton’s BATMAN – is apparent, and one fascinating titbit involves Jordan pursuing Andy Warhol for the Prince of Darkness role that ultimately went to Terence Stamp. We learn of Carter’s distress over Jordan’s alteration of the scripted ending and the prominent visual and thematic influence of a vast list of past films – THE RED SHOES, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, the Corman-Poe cycle, Universal horror, Borowzyk’s THE BEAST.
Gracey examines in depth the film’s use of – and subversion of - the language and imagery of folk and fairy tales to explore notions of identity and gender, with Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” a key example of how her work demythologised the format for a specific, modern culture. In a particularly compelling study of the evolution of the “fairy tale”, we are reminded that they were never originally created for children, with the core text behind THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, “Little Red Riding Hood” traced from the 11th century to the present, encompassing various incarnations, some of which emphasise the sexual aspects more than others, and culminating with genre cinema adaptations such as FREEWAY, TRICK R TREAT and HARD CANDY.
Gracey takes on criticism of the movie – including one writer who considered it a masochistic rape parable – and tackles the criticism Carter endured as she attempted to reclaim and brandish the power of fairy tale heroines like Sleeping Beauty, transforming the message of Red Riding Hood by making the protagonist Rosaleen active, not passive. Gracey persuasively argues against those who consider Jordan’s film altered Carter’s vision negatively, diluting the feminist message and the subjectivity imbued by her female characters (principally through the assumed dominant male gaze of cinema).
Moreover, the author finds a unique union of the common style and visions of Carter and Jordan, defending against accusations of Jordan surrendering to mainstream audience expectations, and finding a bold movie capped by an unresolved, highly ambiguous conclusion. Of particular interest for long-term fans of Gothic cinema is the smart contextual observations of THE COMPANY OF WOLVES’ movie precursors, including the wonderful CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, Bernard Rose’s neglected PAPERHOUSE, a much deserved shout out to the exceptional CELIA : CHILD OF TERROR, the work of Catherine Breillart (who similarly turned to fairy tales to “broaden her exploration of gender conflict and women’s sexuality”) and, of course, Del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH.
Gracey lauds the film’s feminising of a monster that has, by definition and name (“Werewolf”) largely been exclusively masculine and notes the complexity in Jordan’s film that’s rare in the monstrous females of genre cinema. It is perhaps most valuably placed in the context of modern pubescent / teenage horror tales, which have, again, typically been male dominated except for the sub-genre of what the author refers to as menstrual horror : CARRIE, GINGER SNAPS and most recently, RAW.
Ultimately, Gracey’s multi-faceted, intelligent and highly accessible study reflects a multi-layered film that has, if anything, aged better than most, despite – or rather because of – its refusal to fit into a particular convenient category. This factor, of course, ensured its commercial failure at the time due to mismanaged marketing in the USA and a ludicrously prohibitive “18” rating in the UK by a censor board clearly unnerved, as Stephen Woolley suggests, by a subversive and unfamiliar element in the film that was not about simple on screen sex or violence. The BBFC’s decision in this regard can be considered another example of the old-school fears of femininity that Carter was proudly rebelling against – censorious Big Bad Wolves keen to keep blossoming young women afraid of both strangers and their own developing sexuality. Ooh BBFC, what Big misguided decisions you make….All the better to control you with, my dear.
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THE COMPANY OF WOLVES ****