In good company

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

I read recently that a new academic study has been published about The Company of Wolves, the 1984 movie directed by Neil Jordan, based on fiction by Angela Carter and co-scripted by Jordan and Carter.  The study is the latest in a series of academic film-books called Devil’s Advocates, dedicated to classic horror movies and put into print by Auteur Publishing.  Devil’s Advocates: The Company of Wolves is the work of Northern Irishman James Gracey, who describes himself in his Twitter profile as a ‘library assistant’ and ‘occasional author of books about horror films’.  Its appearance has reminded me that The Company of Wolves is one of my favourite movies of the 1980s – of any genre, not just horror.

 

No doubt part of my fondness for the film stems from its source material, because I’m a big fan of the late Angela Carter and her sumptuous gothic prose.  (While I was doing an MA in 2008-2009 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where Carter had once taught creative writing, I was delighted one day when I got chatting with an elderly assistant at the campus bookshop and she reminisced about Carter and how she used to wander around “in a big billowy dress.”)  The Company of Wolves began life as a short story featured in her masterly 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber.  Considering how other stories in the book are adult, gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story), it’s no surprise that The Company of Wolves is a version of Little Red Riding Hood with, as its villain, not a big bad wolf but an even bigger and badder werewolf.

 

© ullstein bild / Getty Images

 

Carter’s Company of Wolves takes its time getting to its main plotline, though.  It begins by recounting several shorter tales and anecdotes that explore wolf and werewolf lore, and the Red Riding Hood character doesn’t set off into the forest to visit Grandmother’s house until halfway through its ten pages.  Additionally, The Company of Wolves is part of a triptych of werewolf-related stories in The Bloody Chamber – it’s sandwiched between ones called The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice (which as well as being an Angela Carter story is the name of a not-bad alternative rock / indie band).  Not only does Jordan’s movie copy the rambling, episodic and anecdotal structure of the fictional Company of Wolves, but it also borrows elements from its two hairy neighbours.

 

Translating into celluloid Carter’s ornate prose style – which, for example, has a midwinter forest containing “huddled mounds of birds, succumbed to the lethargy of the season, heaped on the creaking boughs and too forlorn to sing” and “bright frills of the winter fungi on the blotched trunks of the trees” and “a hare as lean as a rasher of bacon streaking across the path where the thin sunlight dapples the russet brakes of last year’s bracken” – was a job to which the Irish director and writer Neil Jordan was well suited.   His CV includes atmospheric and flamboyant supernatural movies like Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Byzantium (2012), plus the dark, twisted tragic-comic drama The Butcher Boy (1997); and many of his supposedly more realistic films like Angel (1982), Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992) are imbued with a strange, phantasmagorical quality too.

 

With The Company of Wolves, Jordan and his production team – take a bow, cinematographer Bryan Loftus, production designer Anton Furst and art director Stuart Rose – excel themselves in crafting a physical setting for Carter’s stories.  The movie mostly takes place in a pre-industrial village and a surrounding, huge Ruritanian forest.  It’s an environment that’s both quaint with thatched cottages, cobbled streets, mossy churchyards and humped stone bridges and lush with bright-coloured flowers, shaggy trees, trailing vines,  beds of fallen leaves and nests of speckled eggs (which, disconcertingly, hatch and release tiny homunculi).  Yet it’s also a claustrophobic place of misshapen branches, drifting fogs, deep snowbanks and, obviously, wolf-howls that pierce out of the dark recesses of the forest.  In other words, it’s part Romantic poem, part fevered dream and part Hammer horror.

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

If anything, the plotting in the film of The Company of Wolves is more disorientating than that in the original story.  The central structure is similar: we get a clutch of little stories about werewolves – here told to teenage heroine Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) by her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) and then, later, told by Rosaleen herself – before the film settles down to its main narrative, which is what happens one day when Rosaleen dons a red woollen shawl, leaves her village and takes a walk through the forest to her grandmother’s secluded cottage.

 

However, the film places this within a framing device that has Rosaleen as a modern-day girl who dreams about being in a fairy-tale village, in a fairy-tale forest, while she takes an afternoon nap in her bedroom.  (As we descend through Rosaleen’s subconscious to the main part of the dream, we also pass through a creepy transitional zone populated by human-sized versions of the dolls and toys in her bedroom, which calls to mind another Angela Carter work, the 1967 novel The Magic Toyshop.)  At the film’s end, this stories-told-within-a-dream framework collapses, for poor modern-day Rosaleen wakes from her dream to find real wolves crashing through the walls of her room.  None of which matters, of course.  The Company of Wolves isn’t a film to be processed logically.  It’s one to be simply experienced.

 

It hasn’t much character development, since the characters are archetypes rather than proper human beings, but it’s still well acted by a first-rate cast.  Sarah Patterson does what’s required of her as Rosaleen and German actor, dancer and choreographer Micha Bergese is appropriately lithe, flirtatious and, yes, predatory as the young hunstsman whom Rosaleen encounters on the way to her grandmother’s house.  (His eyebrows meet above his nose, which is a dead giveaway.)  Angela Lansbury makes a wonderfully spry and wily grandmother, so much so that I can forgive her for the subsequent dozen years that she spent clogging up my television screen with her dreary TV series Murder, She Wrote (1984-96).  The film also features the excellent trio of David Warner as Rosaleen’s father in both the dream world and the real one, Graham Crowden as the village’s amiable priest, and Brian Glover as the village’s resident Yorkshireman.  (At one point, Glover pontificates, “If you think wolves are big now, you should have seen them when I were a lad!”)

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

In the cast too are Terence Stamp and Jordan’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rea, both of whom appear in the first two stories narrated by Lansbury.  Stamp has a cameo as the Devil, selling a youth a magical balm that, once applied, has lycanthropic consequences.  Rea plays a man who mysteriously disappears on his wedding night and then equally mysteriously reappears seven years later, to discover that his wife has since remarried and sired a brood of children with her new husband.  In the film’s most gruesome sequence, Rea shows his displeasure by becoming a werewolf – a painful process because, to facilitate the transformation, he has to tear his own skin off.

 

With the young, virginal Rosaleen setting out on a journey and being waylaid by a literally beastly male, but then taking control of the situation and resolving it in her own unexpected fashion, there’s obviously a lot happening beneath the film’s surface.  However, I like the fact that while The Company of Wolves is concerned with themes of female empowerment and sexuality, it isn’t a polemic.  Yes, one of Lansbury’s tales ends with an instance of domestic violence, and one of Rosaleen’s tales deals with a wronged woman getting her revenge on the cad responsible.  But Rosaleen’s parents are depicted as having a loving and sharing relationship.  Despite coming to this film after villainous roles in Time After Time (1979), The Time Bandits (1981) and Tron (1982), Warner plays a gentle soul here; and Rosaleen’s mother (Tusse Silberg) points out to her that “if there’s a beast in man, it meets its match in women too.”  Meanwhile, a village boy (Shane Johnstone) who takes a shine to Rosaleen, while evidently a lustful scamp, seems good-hearted enough and demonstrates concern for her safety.

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

This nuance extends to the film’s portrayal of the church.  It’s hardly an institution of oppressive patriarchy.  Rosaleen’s final tale has Graham Crowden’s priest showing kindness to a feral wolf-girl (played by experimental 1980s singer-musician Danielle Dax).  “Are you God’s work or the Devil’s?” he asks her.  “Oh, what do I care whose work you are.  You poor, silent creature…”

 

You appreciate Jordan and Carter’s achievement with The Company of Wolves when you consider how many filmmakers since then have tried, and failed, to convert children’s fairy stories into darker, more adult and more gothic movies.  I’m thinking of Terry Gilliam’s disappointingly uneven Brothers Grimm (2005) or the blah Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) or crud like Red Riding Hood (2011) and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013).

 

Probably the best effort has been Matteo Garrone’s Italian / French / British movie Tale of Tales (2015) which, like The Company of Wolves, isn’t afraid to confound expectations and twist and distort logic.  Which, when you think about it, is what the original fairy and folk tales that inspired both films did anyway.

 

© Nomad Publishing

 

Cinematic heroes 4: David Warner

 

(c) ABC Pictures

 

For most actors, becoming typecast is a pain in the neck.  For the lugubrious-faced, distinctively-voiced David Warner, the day he became typecast – as an actor doing offbeat roles in offbeat films, often horror, science fiction and fantasy ones – was a pane in the neck.  As Keith Jennings, the decent but unfortunate photographer who befriends Gregory Peck’s ambassador Robert Thorn in 1976’s The Omen, he is memorably decapitated when a sheet of glass comes crashing off the back of a truck and shears his head from his shoulders.  Indeed, though The Omen was choc-a-block with people dying in gruesome freak accidents, and later there were Omen sequels with more freak accidents, and later still there were a half-dozen Final Destination movies following a similar template and serving up countless more freak accidents, the cinema has seen very few freak accidents as spectacularly shocking as Warner’s in that 37-year-old movie.

 

The main actors in the big-budget Omen – Peck, Lee Remick, Billie Whitelaw – were names not normally associated with horror movies.  Until then, Warner’s name hadn’t been associated with horror movies either.  Mancunian by birth, he started acting professionally in 1962 and the following year he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, which led to stage roles in Henry IV Part 1, Henry VI Parts I-III, Julius Caesar, Richard II, The Tempest, Twelfth Night and, in 1965, playing the famously self-absorbed and brooding Danish prince, Hamlet.  The earliest films he appeared in were sometimes theatrical in origin too, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Sea Gull, which both appeared in 1968.  However, it was in 1966’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment that he probably made his biggest impression on 1960s movie audiences.  In it he plays a working-class artist who’s abandoned by his posh wife, played by Vanessa Redgrave, and who goes to unhinged extremes to win her back.

 

When David Warner’s movie career is discussed, it’s often overlooked that he was once a regular performer with the legendary director Sam Peckinpah.  His association with the hard-drinking, coke-snorting, near-deranged filmmaker started with 1970’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue, in which he played an eccentric preacher who befriends Jason Robards’ titular hero.  Peckinpah often boasted, “I can’t direct when I’m sober,” and for the young Warner Hogue must have been quite an initiation into the director’s weird and wonderful ways.  When bad weather held up filming, Peckinpah and his crew went on a massive drinking binge and ran up a bar-bill worth thousands and thousands of dollars.

 

(c) EMI Films

 

In the next year’s Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s taboo-busting film set in the English West Country and a prototype for what is known now as the ‘home-invasion’ movie sub-genre, Warner plays the village simpleton who unwittingly kills a local girl and then takes refuge in Dustin Hoffman and Susan George’s house with a squad of vigilantes on his trail.  In Cross of Iron, Peckinpah’s 1977 war movie about a doomed German platoon on the Russian front, he plays a humane German officer who just wants to get through the war in one piece.  In fact, in Cross of Iron, nearly all the Germans, including James Coburn’s gallant corporal and James Mason’s world-weary colonel, are humane types who view war with extreme distaste.  What upsets the apple-cart, and eventually gets most of them killed, is the arrival of Maximillian Schell’s glory-hunting Prussian officer who’s obsessed with winning an iron cross for himself and isn’t worried about his men dying in the process.

 

In 1973 Warner made his first appearance in a horror film, the British anthology movie From Beyond the Grave, whose stories were based on the writings of Ronald Chetwyn-Hayes.  In the film’s first story, The Gate Crasher, he plays an arrogant prick called Edward Charlton who acquires an old mirror from an antique shop and gets it on the cheap by lying to the shop-owner about the mirror’s likely age.  Charlton obviously hasn’t seen many horror films before – otherwise, he might have thought twice about fibbing to a proprietor played by Peter Cushing in a shop called Temptations Inc.  He soon gets his deserts.  The mirror turns out to be inhabited by a malevolent spirit, which possesses him and drives him to commit murder.

 

It was in the last years of the 1970s that Warner got his fondest-remembered roles, starting with the kindly but ill-fated Jennings in The Omen.  Then, in 1979’s Time After Time, he switches from being a nice guy to being a bad one, playing John Leslie Stevenson, a Victorian gentleman and friend of the pioneering science-fiction writer H.G. Wells, who’s played by Malcolm McDowell.  Unbeknownst to Wells, Stevenson has been making a name for himself in the London media of the time by butchering prostitutes in Whitechapel – for he is none other than Jack the Ripper.  When Wells unveils his latest invention, a functioning time machine like the one he would later write about in his famous 1895 novella, Stevenson uses it to escape the closing police net and scoot one century forward into the future.  But the machine has a recall facility, so a horrified Wells summons it back to the 19th century and uses it to follow Leslie to 1979, assuming that he’s let Jack the Ripper loose on Utopia.  Predictably, Wells is more than a little disappointed to find that the 20th century is less utopian than he’d anticipated.  And the Ripper has taken to the era’s sleaze, violence and heavy-decibel rock music like a duck to water.

 

A quirky and very entertaining movie, Time After Time was written and directed by Nicholas Meyer who, regrettably, hasn’t made anything as distinctive since.  Instead, during the 1980s, he got involved in making Star Trek films.  Actually, it’s probably because of Meyer’s involvement in the Star Trek series that both David Warner and Malcolm McDowell have made appearances in it – Warner was in both Star Trek V and VI.  I’m no fan of Star Trek or its movie spin-offs, but I quite like the sixth one, largely because Warner is in it.  He plays Chancellor Gorkon, charismatic leader of the Klingons and obviously modelled on the then Russian leader Mikael Gorbachev, who’s decided it’s time for the Klingon Empire to pursue peace-talks with the West, sorry, the Federation.

 

In 1981 Warner delivered another memorable performance in Terry Gilliam’s imaginative cinematic fairy tale The Time Bandits.  He plays a character called Evil, who’s been created by Ralph Richardson’s Supreme Being and then imprisoned in a hellish place called the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness – obviously, Warner and Richardson represent the Devil and God.  Some fine actors have played Old Nick in movies over the years, including Robert De Niro in Angel Heart, Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate and Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick, but for my money Warner’s portrayal is the most entertaining.  His Devil is a petulant and embittered character who spends his time ranting at his idiotic minions (“Shut up!  I’m speaking rhetorically!”) about how rubbish God is.  The Almighty, he argues, has wasted His time creating useless things such as slugs, nipples for men and 43 species of parrots when He could have concentrated on making laser beams, car phones and VCRs.  Warner steals the show in The Time Bandits, which is no minor achievement considering that in addition to Richardson the film stars Ian Holm, John Cleese, Sean Connery, Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall and a delightful gang of time-traveling dwarves led by the late, great David Rappaport.

 

Thereafter, Warner’s CV filled up with all manner of oddball movies, hardly Shakespearean in the acting opportunities they offered but relished by weirdoes and obsessives like myself: 1979’s Nightwing, 1980’s The Island, 1987’s Waxwork, 1991’s Cast a Deadly Spell, 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness and 1997’s Scream 2.  As an actor he’s adept at playing out-and-out villains, for example, his Dillinger / Sark character in the 1981 Disney computer-game fantasy Tron, a movie that was unappreciated at the time but that, in the decades since, has acquired considerable retro-cool.  He’s also good at doing mad scientists, like the splendidly named Doctor Alfred Necessiter in the whacky 1982 comedy The Man with Two Brains, which is poignant today as a reminder of those long-gone days when Steve Martin used to be funny.  But he also has harassed and melancholic qualities that lend themselves to playing fathers.  He was, for instance, the heroine’s father in 1984’s The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan’s atmospheric and sensual adaptation of Angela Carter’s gothic story; while in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes he plays Senator Sandar, father of Helena Bonham-Carter, the sexiest chimpanzee in the world.  In heavy simian make-up and in Warner’s unmistakable tones, Sandar sighs at one point: “Youth is wasted on the young…”

 

(c) Walt Disney Productions

 

In 1997 Warner also found time to appear in James Cameron’s Titanic, then the biggest-grossest movie of all time – and holder of that title until Cameron broke his own record with Avatar.  Say what you like about Titanic, about the mawkish love story between Kate Winslett and Leonardo Di Caprio, about Billy Zane’s cartoonish performance as the villain, about the unspeakable theme song sung by Celine Dion, but you can’t deny that it has a great supporting cast: Warner, Kathy Bates, Bernard Hill, Victor Garber, Bill Paxton.  Warner, playing Spicer Lovejoy, Zane’s valet, doesn’t have much to do apart from connive with his master, stalk around, spy on Kate Winslett and generally behave sinisterly.  He does, however, to get to punch Di Caprio in the guts after he’s been handcuffed to a railing on board the holed and sinking liner.  Actually, that’s my favourite bit in the film.

 

Warner has long been a fixture on television too.  He’s appeared in one-off TV movies and dramas like 1984’s Frankenstein, where he plays the creature to Robert Powell’s Victor Frankenstein and Carrie Fisher’s Elizabeth, 1993’s Body Bags and 2003’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; appeared in series and miniseries like 1981’s Masada, 1982’s Marco Polo, 1984’s Charlie, 2011’s Secret of Crickley Hall and, from 2008 to 2010, Wallander, in which he plays another father, this time to Kenneth Branagh; and lent his voice to animated shows, including the Superman, Batman and Spiderman ones during the 1990s.  In 1991, he guest-starred in three episodes of the second and final series of David Lynch’s classic off-the-wall soap opera Twin Peaks, playing Thomas Eckhardt, the Hong Kong-based crime-lord who has a long, dark and tangled history with Joan Chen’s Jocelyn Packard.  Mind you, Chen brings that history to an abrupt end by shooting him in the chest.

 

A few years later he was in the underrated, Oliver Stone-produced mini-series Wild Palms, which for the time was a very odd hybrid of conspiracy thriller, Alice in Wonderland and the then-new literary genre of cyberpunk.  Indeed, at one point, cyberpunk author William Gibson makes a cameo appearance in it.  Set in a near-future USA, when an organisation called the Fathers – a sinister cross between a multinational corporation, the Scientologists and the Tea Party – holds sway, the show has Warner as Eli, the slightly Obi Wan-like leader of an underground resistance movement.  The sequence at the end of one episode in which Eli and various sidekicks machine-gun their way into a clinic where Warner’s sickly son Chick is being held prisoner, in an abortive attempt to rescue him, is one of my favourite TV moments ever.  I’m not quite sure why.  Maybe it’s because of the quality of performers involved – besides Warner, the sequence has Kim Catrall and, playing Chick, Brad Dourif, who’s better known as the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play movies.  Maybe it’s because The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun blasts away in the background.  Maybe it’s because it all ends badly – tragedy being the most powerful form of drama.

 

 

In 2005 Warner was involved with the TV institution that is The League of Gentlemen, the famously-twisted comedy series written by and starring Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson.  In fact, he didn’t appear in the television show itself, but in its cinematic spinoff The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse.  Like many a film-based-on-a-TV-show, it doesn’t really work on the big screen, though its most effective scenes are definitely those featuring Warner as a 17th century magician called Dr Erasmus Pea.  His character is rottenly evil but he’s very amusing too.  For example, while Dr Pea uses a pan to fry up a hellish concoction (including two recently gouged-out eyeballs) from which he hopes to grow a monstrous homunculus, the camera cuts to a close-up and he shows a pretentiously-absorbed expression worthy of a TV chef like Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay.

 

Warner clearly gets along with Mark Gatiss, since he has also appeared in Gatiss’s radio comedy show Nebulous and in The Cold War, a recent Gatiss-scripted episode of Doctor Who.  He also turned up as an interviewee in Gatiss’s 2010 documentary series A History of Horror, talking about – yes! – getting his head lobbed off in The Omen.

 

The past decade has seen Warner return to the stage, giving well-received turns as the venerable and vulnerable monarch in King Lear in 2005 and as Falstaff in Henry IV Parts I and II in 2007.  Let’s hope, though, that there are plenty of young filmmakers out there who grew up savouring his performances in the likes of Time After Time, The Time Bandits and Tron, who’ll offer him movie roles too and who’ll keep him employed for a long time to come.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox