A Book Review by Jeremy Carr.
James Gracey’s Devil’s Advocates entry on The Company of Wolves (Auteur Publishing, 2017) does everything a book of its scope should do. In about 120 pages, Gracey takes what is a generally regarded cult classic of some distinction and expounds with care and concision upon its historical context, illuminating aspects of the film with a catalog of relevant reference points and persuasively prescient predecessors, all without ever losing sight of his central focus: the film at hand and its own production and reception.
Directed by Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan and based on several short stories by British novelist Angela Carter, The Company of Wolves was released in 1984, premiering at that year’s Los Angeles International Film Exposition. In contrast to the gritty social commentaries of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Jordan’s film, writes Gracey, “invited audiences into a darkly fantastical world populated by werewolves, witches and maidens breaking free from restrictive social shackles” (7). It is in that regard, before delineating the dual biographical background of Jordan and Carter, that Gracey establishes what distinguished The Company of Wolves as the moody, fanciful work that it is.
The film, which begins as teenage Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) drifts from an afternoon nap into a subconscious realm of illusion and invention, has the liberty of being confined only by the possibilities of its story-within-a-story, dream-within-a-dream framework; which is to say, the potentials are limitless, as are, as Gracey methodically observes, the potentials for interpretation. “Drenched in atmosphere and an eerily sensual malaise,” he writes, Jordan’s film “boasts striking imagery immersed in fairy tale motifs and startling Freudian symbolism” (7). This proves fertile ground for the author’s succeeding analysis, starting with his introductory assertion that the film unravels “as a feverish exploration of a young girl’s burgeoning sexuality” (7). This, as Gracey outlines, seems to be the central, underlying theme of the picture, a theme that is itself derived from a host of stimulating sources, which he also considers in due course.
Abetted by what he sees as a focus on transformation and “in-between-ness” (8), Gracey makes a strong case for the alignment of The Company of Wolves with Jordan’s subsequent work, which, as varied as it is, “usually features recurring themes such as identity, unconventional sexual relationships and gender roles, the significance of storytelling and the relationship between reality and fantasy, loss of innocence, folk and fairy tales and notion of perception” (14). Similarly, noting the creative kinship between Jordan and Carter, as he does in several opening passages, Gracey explains in equal detail how the author herself would frequently explore “various recurring themes such as female sexuality, gender roles, fairy tales and storytelling, metamorphosis – both literal and figurative – sexual violence and the deconstruction of patriarchal discourse” (15). It was, as becomes obvious in Gracey’s text, a superlative meeting of the minds.
In reviewing how Jordan’s film came to be, Gracey surveys the broad, initiating phases of its production, from Carter’s previous adaptation of her story “The Company of Wolves” for BBC Radio 4 in 1980, to the commission she received by Walter Donohue of Channel 4 to adapt it as a short film. Taking note of Jordan’s attraction to the narrative’s “powerful imagery” (17), Gracey devotes ample space to the coverage of his resulting film and its sundry aesthetic components. Alongside interesting bits of behind-the-scenes inspiration (Jordan turned but two lines in Carter’s story into one of the film’s most famous scenes, as a table of party guests turn into a pack of wild wolves), Gracey gives praise to the picture’s set design, its cinematography, and its score, as well as its cross-genre elements, its tonal fluidity, its diverse cast, and more unique facets of the shoot like having to work with the animals wrangled for the film. He also mentions more contentious times, as when segments of the script were removed or altered for the final release, especially a controversial ending change that left Carter quite displeased.
Most instructive is Gracey’s extensive investigation into The Company of Wolves’ diverse thematic and narrative characteristics, where such features had been found in pre-existing work – across artistic forms and through the centuries – and how these prior iterations of similar material play into the connective genre of Jordan’s film, if not in its own creation. Recalling earlier feature films like An American Werewolf in London (1981) and The Howling (1981), and later titles such as Ginger Snaps (2000), Teeth (2007), and Jennifer’s Body (2009), Gracey draws some clear cinematic parallels, in both form and content, especially with regards to body horror tropes and sequences of transformation. But his wide-ranging perspective likewise incorporates more idiosyncratic examples such as Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975), Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), and even the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. And in most all cases, the evaluations are considerably compelling.
It is an accomplished and convincing rundown, and even more enlightening are the comparisons to non-filmic sources, the literary antecedents that bear comparable consequence to The Company of Wolves, particularly as they relate to the wolf as a connotative creature with a rich symbolic history. Chapter two, “Telling Tales,” delves into the folk and fairy tale genesis of such stories, dispelling the myth that such anecdotes were primarily for children and placing “Little Red Riding Hood” as the film’s most discernable ancestor. That multi-sourced European yarn, not surprisingly, receives the bulk of Gracey’s concentration, and in chapter three, “Red Hoods, Dark Woods,” he remarks, “of all the fairy tales ever told … [it is] one of the most enduring and provocative” (45). And from there, he compiles a thorough history of this well-trodden tale, encompassing a range of variations and interpretations.
With so much preexisting material, there was, with The Company of Wolves, an inherent expectation to do something new, and these deviations and loyalties are exactly what Gracey establishes for context and contrast. Chapter four, “Seeing Red,” begins with the claim that at the heart of The Company of Wolves is “a story of sexual awakening, transformation – both literal and figurative – and the empowerment of women” (61). This, Gracey notes, stems largely from Carter’s source material and the author’s brand of feminism which, he says, “represents one strand and it was often at odds with those of other feminists at the time; aspects of it were even considered highly controversial” (61). He points to, for example, her interest in pornography as “a form liberating for women” (61) and her use of violence. As a coming of age parable, however, the filmic collaboration has a “playfulness” (72) typical of both Carter and Jordan, each sharing “a postmodern approach to writing which not only toys with ideas of boundaries, gender, perception and identity, but does so through an enchanted mirror of references to other works and texts” (72). The Company of Wolves therefore “brims with signs, symbols and signifiers, and images and objects are laden with meaning” (72), and as vast as they are, Gracey does his level best to decode such significance where possible, offering up beneficial insight even when it’s not.
James Gracey’s text on The Company of Wolves is perhaps best for those who know little about the movie or its lineage, for what he organizes is a credible and fascinating array of analysis and historical precedent. Nothing is pushed too far, as the comparative examples serve the better purpose of proposing features to consider in one’s own reading of the film, potentially drawing individual conclusions and comparisons in the process. A good example is Gracey’s time spent in the interest of Lycanthrope lore, wherein he not only submits conclusive literary and filmic paragons, but he more broadly establishes a point of both critical foundation and departure, a stated area of interest but one on which more could certainly be said. If there’s any sort of drawback to The Company of Wolves, it is in certain passages that do get a little repetitive (the length of Gracey’s book is reasonable for its caliber, but it could be less). Chapter six, for instance, dealing with gender, rehashes a few concepts similar to those covered elsewhere concerning masculinity and femininity. Nevertheless, Gracey manages to conclude even this chapter with new examples to act as jumping off points, and he firmly rounds out his work with a look back at the reception of Jordan’s film, which was widely overlooked in its time, suffered from poor or mismanaged marketing, and had lackluster box office returns. To that end, Gracey does his part to add to the legacy of The Company of Wolves, strengthening the film’s importance with a thoughtful monograph that is detailed and accessible, presenting arguments with deliberation and validity, never forcefully or self-righteous. Jordan’s film isn’t perfect by any means, but Gracey’s ultimate achievement is in making the case that it still warrants and welcomes further examination.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.