Hollywood loves it’s dark, R rated takes on classic fairytales and Little Red Riding Hood has gotten the treatment a few times, the latest being an ill advised, awful attempt with Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman. To cleanse the pallet of that mess you could check out the gorgeous, creaky, atmospheric hidden gem that is Neil Jordan’s The Company Of Wolves, a lyrical, mesmeric take on the folklore that combines traditional elements with nastier psychological subtext and some terrifying werewolf mythology with effects so gooey they make The Howling look like Balto.
Somewhere in a drafty English countryside manor a young girl (Sarah Patterson) tosses and turns in her sleep as some unknown force beckons her from outside the walls. As we are literally drawn into her subconscious while she slumbers we see her exist in a dream world, living in an enchanted forest with her parents (Steven Rea and Tusse Silberg) and sister. Also with them is her persnickety granny, played with plummy mother-hen fussiness by the great Angela Lansbury. Granny warns her not to venture too far outside the village because werewolves have been sighted, and that the worst kind of wolf a young girl can encounter is one whose fangs are hidden on the inside. This is of course an apparent theme that would fit right in in today’s cultural climate and could teach people a bit about subtlety and restraint when exploring the subject matters. She’s just at that stage between childhood and adolescent that is confusing, alluring and oh so dangerous, and the film uses the fairytale elements to uncover something darker and closer to home lurking beneath. It’s also just a fantastic werewolf flick too, there’s stories within stories told by Lansbury and you can really get lost and swept up in this fantastical world like the dream it ultimately is.
Jordan is a director who clearly cherishes the complexities and challenges of the medium, not one single film he’s released has felt hollow, compromised or candy coated for the masses. This one has absolutely knockout production design, creature effects that will have you covering your eyes (that poor crying toddler when buddy turns into the wolf) and a musical score by George Fenton that’s achingly melodic and threatening in equal doses. As much as all this style is on point though so too are the themes and substance in storytelling, carrying a dense weight that justifies all the visual grandeur. This feels like an important film, albeit absorbed through the scattered prism of a breathless, sweaty nightmare because after all, it is all inside a dream. Until it’s not. One of the best horror films of the 1990’s, nab a Blu Ray if you can but they’re probably scarce. Oh and watch for a diabolical cameo from Terence Stamp too as the Devil himself.