Back in the good old 80s, parents very rarely worried about film certification. As long as it kept the little ones quiet while Minder was on, anything was on the table. That is how my nine-year-old self ended up watched Neil Jordan’s disturbing remake of Little Red Riding Hood, The Company of Wolves. In the history of my film viewing, only two scenes have relentlessly ravaged my psyche; the dream sequence in American Werewolf in London, and a scene depicting wealthy Victorians transforming into wolves at a wedding banquet in The Company of Wolves. I have seen An American Werewolf in London many times since but have never managed to bring myself back to the creeping subconscious horror of Jordan’s fairy tale nightmare. In the interest of science, I braved my demons and watched it again, over 3 decades later, to see if I could rid the demons.
Young teenager Rosaleen, played by the subsequently untraceable Sarah Patterson, lives in a small village in the woods, constantly at the mercy of wolves who prey on anyone silly enough to wander off the path. When Rosaleen’s sister Alice becomes victim to one such attack, the surviving sister goes to spend the night at her Grandmother, played by the brilliant Angela Lansbury, to allow her parents to grieve for the night. Good old granny thinks the best way to calm the anguished girl is to tell her stories about werewolves. She gives the sage, if somewhat harsh, advice ‘Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man with joined eyebrows’. Of course, she does all 3. Kids eh? The tale is told primarily in stories between family members, building up the backstory for what eventually becomes a climax which would make the Grimm Brothers raise monobrows
The effects still stand up, even if the average nine-year-old these days sees worse on their daily Fortnite sessions. Most of the wolves look a lot more like German Shepherds to me, maybe there was a shortage. The scenery does tend to drift towards Fraggle Rock from time to time, but Jordan’s eye was never really on the background, but to suck the viewer into the narrative doom for the characters. The disjointed nature of the film being made up of individual stories works in the film’s favour, as it gives it an awkward feel, never something you can quite get comfortable with. It feels like a mixture between the utterly terrifying 80s kids TV show The Box of Delights and Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (who knows a thing or two about the crossover of fairy tales and horror). The cast is fantastic too; the wonderful Graham Crowden as the batty priest, David Warner as Rosaleen’s father, and the irreplaceable Brian Glover, who incidentally was also in An American Werewolf in London (Beware the Moon!).
What understandably went completely over the head of that poor little nine-year-old was the overreaching metaphor and symbology in the film. The Company of Wolves is all about the transition from a girl into womanhood. All the clues are there; the red shawl is a symbol of menstruation, the wolves are the attention of men, the smashing of toys symbolising the end of childhood, the eggs Rosaleen finds are the realisation of procreation, the lipstick, the erotic undertones. Look, I was nine, ok? But over thirty years later it makes me realise even more what a fantastic film this really is.
As an out and out horror, it may not leave you with the decades-long dread that it left me, but then I’m guessing you’re not nine years old (if you are, ask your parents’ permission before watching) but as a metaphorical horror art piece, it’s as good as it was back when it was made. The Victorian feast scene is still absolutely and utterly terrifying.