“If there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women too.”
The Company of Wolves (1984) — a first foray into horror by future Interview with a Vampire director Neil Jordan — doesn’t play like an ordinary werewolf film because it isn’t one. Based somewhat loosely on the distinctive work of British author Angela Carter, in particular her collection of overtly feminist and sexual reworkings of fairy tales titled The Bloody Chamber; The Company of Wolves is a series of surrealist vignettes presented as the frightening dreams of a pubescent girl named Rosaleen (played with maturity and wry humor by young Sarah Patterson). In the film, the potentially threatening, even predatory, nature of male sexuality quickly becomes a subtext so clear that it really isn’t so very sub at all. In her dreams, Rosaleen is warned by her grandmother (a weird and wonderful Angela Lansbury) about girls who “stray from the path” and wolves that look like men but are “hairy on the inside.” An early vignette finds Jordan regular Stephen Rea playing a jilted husband who peels away his own skin in a rage (and a tour-de-force of cool and extremely gruesome makeup effects) to reveal the wolf beneath. But The Company of Wolves is far from a one-note film, and its thematic concerns are more complex than just highlighting the more animalistic qualities of men. Rosaleen’s mother reminds her that, “If there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women too,” and the symbolism woven throughout suggests that while adulthood (and adult sexuality) can be threatening, it can also be a desirable, and in fact necessary, transition.
Childhood playthings are one of the symbols of greatest significance in The Company of Wolves. One of the first images in the film is that of a discarded doll, and Rosaleen is seen sleeping in the room of a child — surrounded by teddy bears and more dolls — but her lips bear the telltale traces of experimentation with lipstick, and on numerous occasions in the film there is an insistence on the putting away of childish things, the necessity of maturing and moving on. Rosaleen’s first dream is of her bratty elder sister Alice finding herself alone in the woods, surrounded by childhood toys that have been transformed into sources of horror. She is assaulted by a large teddy bear and a doll in a sailor suit, and encounters a dollhouse overrun by rats before finally being devoured by wolves. The attacking playthings suggest that hanging on to childhood, and subsequently facing adulthood unprepared, is a dangerous thing indeed.
The younger but wiser Rosaleen, by contrast, knows how to fend for herself in the woods alone. She listens to the warnings of her grandmother, but not without some skepticism, and heeds the less puritanical words of her mother as well. Toward the close of the film, Rosaleen dreams of herself as Red Riding Hood willfully seducing and being seduced by a stranger in the woods (one who is both the huntsman and the wolf combined). Soon the doll imagery comes into play again. At Rosaleen’s grandmother’s cabin, the huntsman/wolf knocks off the old woman’s head, and — in a moment foreshadowed by the fact that one of Rosaleen’s dolls resembles the grandmother — it shatters just like a porcelain doll’s head would. The grandmother’s one-sided warnings are equated with the world of childhood that doomed Alice, and are cast aside in favor of the more complex understanding of sexuality presented by Rosaleen’s mother. At the close of the film, in a bit that is often considered confusing and just plain odd, a number of wolves invade the sleeping Rosaleen’s home, one of them crashing through her bedroom window. A key to the scene is that the wolf doesn’t only smash the window — it also shatters the toys that are perched on windowsill or are otherwise in its way.
The wolves themselves are also a key to understanding this superficially puzzling film. It is of utmost importance that not all of the wolves in the film are male. The beast in women that Rosaleen’s mother assures her daughter of (after assuring her that Rosaleen’s father does not hurt her when they’re together) is a feminist rebuke of the young woman as hapless victim — as sexual prey for a predatory male. The assurances of Rosaleen’s mother also become fantastical reality later in the film. After Rosaleen’s huntsman is reduced to a rather tame and whimpering sort of wolf, she pets him and tells him the tale of a she-wolf before becoming one herself (she is discovered — and recognized — by her mother), and following him off into the woods. Rosaleen’s transformation is seemingly both voluntary and freeing. It offers us a definitive reversal of the victim role in which Red Riding Hood and those interchangeable female horror film characters are typically cast. Thus, while it is a horror film, and a fabulously lurid one for the eek freaks among us, The Company of Wolves does not simply play on or reinforce the sexual anxieties of its audience. Rather, it presents both sides of sexuality, both threatening and desirable, as well as a level playing field for both genders.