And so, what of the aformentioned FX?. Whilst time has, understandably, not been the kindest to them the sheer creativity on display is enough to make up for any technical shortcomings. Only 3 years earlier Rick Baker had wowed audiences with his stunning work on John Landis’ “An American Werewolf In London” (still, arguably, the greatest man to wolf transformation scene ever comitted to celluloid) and so it was perhaps wise for the FX team to avoid a similarly extended, fully lit transformation sequence.
Nonetheless the finished film does boast some extraordinary, albeit dated, scenes including Stephen Rea tearing the very skin from his face (his eventual metamorphosis sadly looks decidedly mechanical), a gypsy woman transforming an entire wedding party into a pack of slobbering wolves (the decision to shoot parts of this scene as through a fractured mirror helps disguise some of the lesser FX work and, aesthetically, makes for a wonderfuly skewed, suprisingly comical and highly memorable scene) and, as pictured on countless VHS inlay covers, a wolf literally bursting from a young man’s mouth. So perhaps it’s a testament to the film itself that the FX never threaten to overwhelm the picture but merely to assist in telling the story.
Neil Jordan has since revealed, in various interviews about the film, that certain aspects of the original screenplay were subsequently rejigged or altered due to budgetary constraints and technical difficulties (It’s no secret that the wolves themselves are, in fact, Belgian Shepherd Dogs whose fur was dyed the appropriate colour). On the DVD commentary he states how the advances in FX work and, in particular, the rise of CGI would have made things a whole lot easier and practical yet I’m somewhat dubious as to what this would have produced. In a generation where CGI is abundant and plentiful I’ve seen many questionable werewolf effects (yes, “Twilight” I AM looking at you!) that leave me warmly nostalgic about the days of latex, makeup and good old animatronics and despite the odd dated effect I can’t help feeling that “A Company Of Wolves” is all the better for it …
But what of Rosaleen herself? Despite originally casting for a 16 year old girl it was to be young Sarah Patterson, aged only 13, who eventually claimed the role as her own. And despite only appearing in three films since (the 1987 direct to video “Snow White”, in which she starred alongside Dame Diana Rigg, being the most successful) her portrayal of young Rosaleen is sure to leave a lasting imprint on all who watch the film.
Perfectly capturing the beatific innocence and incipient curiosity required for such a role Patterson not only exudes a timeless ethereal beauty but totally convinces as a young girl going through both emotional and hormonal changes in what is, undoubtedly, the greatest metamorphosis of her life. Yet it’s the comforting words and advice of her dear Grandmother that initially offer much security, no more apparent as when she knits Rosaleen a red shawl.
Drawing obvious parallels with the tale of “Red Riding Hood” the shawl offers Rosaleen both comfort and warmth but can also be seen to represent Rosaleen’s femininity and developing sexuality, the colour red emotive of both desire and passion. “Soft as snow … red as blood”, she exclaims upon receiving said gift, perfectly encompassing the duality of the garment and a gradual understanding of her latent desires and fantasies. But while we initially see an adolescent girl on the cusp of puberty and a pure, angelic and virgin child come the encounter with The Huntsman Rosaleen’s transformation is made all the more explicit by the shedding of the shawl.
No longer content with hiding her developing body from the gaze of others she is now comfortable to reveal her true self, shedding the garment like the wolves themselves have previously shed their once human skin. All that remains of Grandmother now is a few strands of grey hair burning in the hearth, brutally slain by the Huntsman moments before Rosaleen’s arrival. But Grandmother did, of course, exist merely in the dream world and once again it’s no coincidence that she resembled the grey haired, porcelain headed doll we first glimpsed in Rosaleen’s bedroom.
This, in itself, leads to a wonderfully memorable scene near the film’s close that sees Lansbury’s decapitated head fly across the room and shatter, like porcelain, against the fireplace. By then, of course, the dream is nearing its end, reality beckons and perhaps Rosaleen is finally waking up to the many changes happening inside her, hence the merging of both fantasy and reality as the dream world begins to shatter.
In much the same way as Jordan was to later harness the acting talent of a 12 year old Kirsten Dunst in “Interview With The Vampire” in a role that required her to play an adult forever trapped inside a child’s body here he takes the teenage Patterson and imbues her with a flourishing adult temperament that, like the wolves at the film’s heart, slowly grows stronger and out of control before bursting forth come the film’s climax. As her mother and father burst through the door of the tiny cottage they’re alarmed to discover only a lone wolf to greet them. Raising his shotgun Rosaleen’s father plans only to shoot this hateful beast dead but her mother knows better. For it seems this wolf IS her daughter the once sweet and innocent child from before is no more and the metamorphosis is at last complete.
Rounding off the hugely impressive cast we have a number of familiar faces such as Neil Jordan regular Stephen Rea as the cursed young groom at the heart of Granny’s first tale, Graham “Waiting For God” Crowden as the village priest, Sheffield born icon and “American Werewolf” star Brian Glover as the father of Rosaleen’s teenage admirer, musician and one time member of post-punk band “Lemon Kittens” Danielle Dax as a memorably naked Wolfgirl in Rosaleen’s final tale, German-born dance choreographer Micha Bergese as the Huntsman (who was to reteam with Jordan 10 years later playing a Paris vampire in “Interview With The Vampire”) and, best of all, a delightful cameo by none other than General Zod himself, Mr. Terence Stamp, as The Devil in Granny’s second tale that provides us with unequivocal confirmation of Rosaleen’s later observation that the Prince of Darkness is “a fine gentleman”.
Though hardly befitting the term “special edition” the DVD release from 2005 is well worth a purchase for fans of the film. Packaged in a slickly designed steelbook it not only includes an 18 page Behind The Scenes Dossier but a wonderfully enjoyable, engaging and highly informative commentary from Neil Jordan. Taking the time to discuss several of the films recurring themes, images and symbolism he also imparts some fascinating nuggets of trivia including the fact that it was Andy Warhol, and not Terence Stamp, that was initially envisaged as The Devil.
Nonetheless, “The Company Of Wolves” is a truly unique film and one I have no hesitation in recommending. Whether viewed as a simple fairytale, a spin on the traditional werewolf genre or a deeper, more allegorical study of a young girl’s journey into adulthood Jordan’s film has more than stood the test of time. Beautifully shot, written and acted by a wonderful cast it’s a film that pulses with the kind of dark, adult sexuality and untamed desires that make the “Twilight “ series look like a spot of harmless flirting and would have young Jacob Black cowering behind the nearest lamppost.
Don’t wait until the next full moon to experience it, track it down on DVD or Bluray today … oh, and don’t stray from the path TOO much!
“You pay too much attention to your granny. She knows a lot but she doesn’t know everything. And if there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women too”