Metrograph’s inclusion of The Company of Wolves in a series focused on actor Terence Stamp feels deliciously cheeky. Viewers craning to see his piercing eyes will catch him, at the 35-minute mark, gliding into (and out of) the film’s fog-shrouded forest. He is the Devil, of course, chauffeured in a white antique car by an adolescent girl in white suit and cap, and he dispenses a potion to a wandering boy that makes him hirsute and rapacious—in other words, a man, or at least our idea of one. Stamp’s cameo is brief but duly seductive: Masculinity is coerced, and its charlatans must be charismatic. “The company of wolves,” after all, is not exactly a subtle double entendre for the patriarchy.
This stew of symbols springs from the knotty mind of co-screenwriter Angela Carter, a fabulist best known for transfiguring fairy tales (Grimm, Perrault; she translated the latter) into charged retellings that make the subtext text: Female power and sexuality is forefront, and Freud and folklore supply the lexicon. “The Company of Wolves” is a short story from her most famous book, The Bloody Chamber, but the film is not an adaptation of it. For all Carter’s interest in the skeletal narratives of old tales, she mired her writing, with great talent, in moods and images instead (she can’t resist describing the eyes of wolves as “luminous, terrible sequins”). In director Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire, the underseen Byzantium), with his knack for excess and ornamentation, she found an ideal bedfellow. The Company of Wolves combines and burnishes her stories with a Hammer-horror sheen, then sets them all in one fecund fairy-tale wood in which characters spin yarns about wolves and werewolves.
In the opening scene, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) slumbers in her present-day room with rouged lips and a magazine on her pillow. (The cover story? THE SHATTERED DREAM.) Her dreams, the meat of the film, place her in the fairy-tale wood of an earlier time. Her sister has been gobbled up by a wolf, and she’s often versed by her grandmother (a steely-eyed Angela Lansbury) in old wives’ tales, aka feminized social science: Never trust a man whose eyebrows meet, don’t stray from the path, the worst wolves are hairy on the inside. Patterson plays Rosaleen, our Little Red Riding Hood of sorts, with a precocious curiosity: climbing a tree, stroking an engorged spider, reaching for a severed hand. She’s not afraid nor a parody of empowerment but attentive and aware. Rosaleen is also a good listener, in a way that’s hard to master; she absorbs but doesn’t submit to granny’s teachings. In a town of men, perhaps she prefers the company of wolves. Or, as Carter writes, “and, since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.”