I’ve long felt history should be taught backwards, so you don’t have to wait until the very end to be able to connect it to our present. But since I don’t teach history this will have to do for now, a small column where film history will be told backwards, one film – and one year – at a time. I wanted to escape the present right away though – I talk about the present enough in other film columns on the site – so let’s start at a personal crossroads, the year I first started going to the films regularly by myself. That would be 1984 and the films to follow will be varied, from different countries, blockbusters and indies, Oscar winners and forgotten films.
Let’s start by a little film that didn’t travel far, by then a little-known Irish director called Neil Jordan. He was directing only his second feature, The Company of Wolves, from a screenplay he wrote with Angela Carter, based on brilliant Grimm’s inspired short stories that I wrote about last month.
Neil Jordan is one of the best directors working, yet also one of the most underrated. His first big hit was Mona Lisa, the next film after this, and then he peaked five years later with his masterpiece, The Crying Game. After that he was a sought-after director, did Interview With the Vampire, that certainly has similarities with the film we’re about to discuss – but even if the films stayed good he fell out of fashion. But don’t let that deter you from seeing great films like The Butcher Boy and Ondine.
Yet he hadn’t completely mastered his craft at the time of The Company of Wolves. Visually you could spot a master’s touch – but he hadn’t quite mastered the art of directing actors, some of whom are a bit on the wooden side here (or maybe that’s just because of all the surrounding wood?). Later he would turn into a great actors’ director, for example I’ve rarely seen better acting then Stephen Rea in The Crying Game, well, apart from perhaps Forest Whitaker and Jaye Davidson – in The Crying Game.
Rea is one of Jordan’s most loyal colleagues, appearing in most of his films – and has a short albeit spectacular scene here, where he morphs into a wolf in terrifying fashion. Those scenes of change are the best ones in the film, Jordan conjures up many different and truly stunning ways men can change into wolves. Another scene shows a young bare-chested man buy a strange substance to get some hair on his chest, with unforeseen consequences.
As previously noted the story in based on the last few tales of Angela Carter’s masterful short story collection The Bloody Chamber, and in fact this is really a bit like a short story collection, where those stories eventually feed into the main narrative. Those short stories are told by a grandmother to her granddaughter – and little by little they get entagled into this web of stories themselves, perhaps furthering grandma’s claim that all those tall tales are true. She also warns her granddaughter that while some wolves are hairy on the outside, the truly dangerous ones “are hairy on the inside.” And now you can guess what grandma this is and who her granddaughter is.
Jordan creates a timeless fairy tale world in the film – there’s a car in one scene but mostly it feels like the late middle ages. Men and wolves live in close contact, so it’s not really correct to speak of werewolves in the traditional sense, you rather get the feeling that it’s very unclear where the world of men ends and where the world of wolves start. Every man has some hair inside him and you can spot a bit of humanity in all those wolfish eyes.
The enchanted forest that the characters get repeatedly lost in is a magnificent creation and while the stories are most familiar, Jordan and Carter put just enough unpredictable spin on it so you’ll never know what will happen next – even if you think you do.
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson