“Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.”
The early to mid-’80s was a glorious time for werewolf movies. Between An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Wolfen, and Teen Wolf, the advances in practical effects created the perfect environment for lycanthropic horror. Right in the middle of the werewolf’s prime was Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, released in the UK on September 21, 1984. The surreal horror-fantasy made its way to US theaters on April 19, 1985, where it would slip under the radar to become one of the most overlooked horror films.
Based on author Angela Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber, namely the stories featuring werewolves, The Company of Wolves comes across as an outsider because of its unique blend of both fantasy and horror. A strange coming of age story, and the horrors of burgeoning sexuality, clashes with the bloody violence of werewolves. It is Little Red Riding Hood meets carnal werewolves. It was too horrific for fantasy fans and too close to Grimm fairy tales with its dreamlike quality for horror fans. The critics, for the most part, ate it up, but fans weren’t quite sure what to do with it. That it was essentially an anthology film told in a non-linear, disjointed way made it all the more difficult to market.
Young heroine Rosaleen begins and ends the film in a modern setting, stuck in a fevered dream of living a small village surrounded by foggy woods, inhabited by man-eating wolves, during the middle ages. She and her Granny, played by Angela Lansbury, tell each other stories of wolves posing as humans. Mostly Granny is warning her grandchild of the carnal evils of men, hoping to impart life lessons, and Rosaleen’s stories tend to favor the werewolves and look down upon humanity.
The visuals and tone would make the Grimm brothers proud, but Jordan never waivers from the gory nature of what werewolves should be. The budget was low, and it’s fairly obvious that the quaint village and its adjacent wood was really a sound stage in disguise. Yet Jordan does a great job of elevating the film beyond its meager budget, save for a few obvious missteps (like coloring Belgian Sheep Dogs fur to make them look like wolves in certain scenes), and the practical effects of the wolves go a long way in that.
For all of the different segments featured, the werewolves all share a common trait; their eyebrows meet in the middle. Yes, this was the movie that made me scared of unibrows. The transformations change, though. In one story, a young Stephen Rea plays a groom that abandons his wife for the call of the moon. When he returns years later, he literally rips off his skin, before a muscle and sinew transformation sequence. In another, a wolf emerges from the man’s mouth, shedding its human skin. It’s a clever way to weave in werewolf mythology and solve the budgetary constraints at the same time. A lot of credit also goes to production designer Anton Furst, who did so much with so little that Stanley Kubrick hired him for Full Metal Jacket based on his work for this film.
The Company of Wolves also features a young Terence Stamp as The Devil, riding up in a Rolls-Royce in a scene, because why not? Strange eggs that hatch to reveal crying baby figurines, hedgehogs that spook wild men during full moons and giant toys that torment their owners, The Company of Wolves does everything in its power to convey that lucid dreaming feel. It succeeds too. Ginger Snaps wasn’t the first horror film to use lycanthropy as a metaphor for an adolescent girl’s burgeoning sexuality; The Company of Wolves was. It just took a period approach wrapped in a bizarre fairy tale nightmare. Lionsgate’s resurrection of the Vestron Video brand for its Blu-ray collector series is missing this Vestron Video release, and I hope it’s on their agenda. The Company of Wolves is a unique addition to the werewolf sub-genre that could use more appreciation.