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

 

Actors and Directors

 

An exchange between Johnny Depp and Ricky Gervais, from the first series of Gervais’s TV show Life’s Too Short:

“You know, I’m working with a great director just now.  A guy the name of Tim Burton.  You ever heard of him?”

“Of course.”

“And the film itself is really brilliant…  And, um, I’m playing a very interesting character.  Do you have any idea who my leading lady is on this film?”

“In the Tim Burton film?

“Yeah.”

“Helena Bonham-Carter?”

“How’d you know?”

“Stab in the dark.”

“She thinks you’re an idiot.”

*

It’s hard to believe now but there was a time when Depp made films for directors who weren’t Tim Burton.  However, of late, his partnership with the tousle-haired, black-clad director of all things gothic has increasingly dominated his career.  Some would say it’s made Depp’s career rather stale.  Yes, he was great in the 1990s when Burton gave him roles in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow.  However, having been force-fed Depp-Burton versions of Willie Wonka, Sweeny Todd, the Mad Hatter and Barnabas Collins in quick succession since the mid-noughties, I suspect modern audiences hope that Depp and Burton, like a married couple whose marriage has lost its magic, might want to spend a little time apart from each other.

 

Anyway, this has made me think about regular collaborations between other actors and directors.  Back in cinematic history, of course, Humphrey Bogart and John Huston were a prominent acting / directing duo, as were John Wayne and John Ford.  More recently, we’ve had Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese and more recently still, Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino.  Here are a few of my own favourite actor (or actress) / director team-ups.  Note that I’ve excluded performers who appeared in numerous movies directed by their spouses, which means there’s no mention of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes or, for that matter, Mr and Mrs Tim Burton.

 

Dick Miller and Joe Dante.

 

Craggy New York character actor and former middle-weight boxer Dick Miller made his name in the 1950s and 60s appearing in films directed by the human B-movie factory that is Roger Corman – for example, It Conquered the World, Little Shop of Horrors, The Premature Burial, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Wild Angels, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre, The Trip and most famously 1959’s A Bucket of Blood (in which he played a very bad avant-garde sculptor called Walter Paisley who starts faking his art by murdering the annoying Beatniks at his local café and covering their bodies in clay).  When Corman moved into producing and encouraged young, up-and-coming talents to do the directing for him (on low salaries and with low budgets), Miller got passed on like a family heirloom to Corman’s prodigies – Jonathan Kaplan (1973’s Student Teachers), Jonathan Demme (1975’s Crazy Mama), Paul Bartel (1976’s Carquake), Allan Arkush (1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) and James Cameron (1984’s The Terminator – Miller is the hapless shopkeeper who furnishes Arnie with his weaponry).

 

However, his longest and most prolific partnership has been with Joe Dante, who by my calculations has cast him in 13 movies, from 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard to 2009’s The Hole.  Dante usually puts Miller in blue-collar roles – security guard, pizza delivery guy, garbage collector, truck driver, taxi driver and in the case of Murray Futterman, his memorably harassed character in Gremlins and Gremlins II, snowplough driver.  Furthermore, in honour of his most famous role, three of Dante’s movies – Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling (1981) and the Dante-directed segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983) – see Miller playing a character called Walter Paisley.

 

Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog.

 

Unstoppable sex-crazed schizophrenic German force meets unmoveable insane-dream-obsessed German object?  The relationship between Kinski and Herzog could be euphemistically described as ‘tempestuous’ and it was that way from the very beginning.  Their first collaboration, Aguirre, Wrath of God, saw Kinski lose his cool so spectacularly that he fired a gun at a film-crew tent and blew a fingertip off one of the extras.  Herzog, in turn, was said to have held a gun on Kinski to force him to continue filming, although Herzog denies this.  Meanwhile, 1982’s dragging-a-steamship-through-the-Peruvian-rainforest epic Fitzcarraldo was right up Kinski and Herzog’s street – they eschewed the use of special effects and did it using real steamships in real rainforest.  By this time Kinski was so off his head that supposedly one of the local Indian chiefs approached Herzog and offered to kill him.

 

(c) Werner Herzog Filmproduktion 

 

Kinski and Herzog’s other collaborations were Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), in which, miraculously, Kinski managed to keep his cool during the four-hour make-up sessions required to turn him into the bald, toothy, Spock-eared and talon-fingered nosferatu of the title, Wozeck (1979) and Cobra Verde (1987).  Herzog was so unbearable during the filming of that last movie that original cinematographer Thomas Mauch ended up walking off the set and Herzog himself didn’t employ Kinski again.

 

Shelley Duvall and Robert Altman.

 

The huge-eyed, gangly and charming Shelley Duvall was rarely absent from Robert Altman’s movies during the 1970s – she was in Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Thieves like us (1974), Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) and Three Women (1977).  With her distinctive appearance, it was inevitable when Altman agreed to direct Popeye for Disney Studios in 1980 that he asked Duvall to play Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl.  (Indeed, Duvall was initially reluctant to accept the role because ‘Olive Oyl’ was the nickname she’d been tormented with at school.)  Afterwards, the actress and the director went their separate ways.  Duvall devoted herself to producing television adaptations of fairy stories and children’s books, though not before she got pursued around the Overlook Hotel by an axe-waving Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980).

 

Oliver Reed and Ken Russell.

 

The pugnacious and permanently-pickled legend that is Oliver Reed had been making swashbucklers and horror movies for Hammer Films and swinging-sixties comedies for Michael Winner when Ken Russell – a director best described by the adjective ‘unrestrained’ – gave him a leg up into arthouse cinema.  Reed had small parts in Russell’s Mahler (1974) and Lisztomania (1975) but it was in Russell’s three best remembered films – Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971) and Tommy (1975) – that he excelled.

 

Women in Love is famous for its saucy nude wrestling scene between Reed and Alan Bates – even now you have to ‘sign in to confirm your age’ to view it on youtube.  Of major concern to Reed and Bates before they filmed it, apparently, was the question of whose member would look bigger and whose would look smaller.  (To their relief, when they compared lengths, it was a draw.)  Two years later, Reed played Urbain Grandier in Russell’s hugely controversial The Devils, based on John Whiting’s play of the same name and The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley – such passions did the film arouse that in a TV debate Russell walloped critic Alexander Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of the Evening Standard (the paper that Walker wrote for) when the latter described the film as ‘monstrously indecent’.  In Tommy, Reed held his own as the title character’s brutal stepfather – holding his own was no mean feat in a movie that included Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Keith Moon as the detestable child-molesting Uncle Ernie and Ann-Margaret writhing in a morass of baked beans.

 

(c) Warner Brothers 

 

Both Reed and Russell’s careers went into freefall in the 1980s and thereafter their paths didn’t cross again.  It might’ve been fun, though, to see Reed in Russell’s Lair of the White Worm (1988) – you could almost imagine him fumbling to open his trousers whilst bellowing, “You call that a giant worm?  This is a giant worm!”

 

Stephen Rea and Neil Jordan.

 

Irish director Neil Jordan’s films seem to need the presence of Stephen Rea.  Whether he’s in a main role – Angel (1982), The Crying Game (1992) – or a supporting one – Michael Collins (1996), The Butcher Boy (1997) – or just turning up in a cameo – The Company of Wolves (1984), Breakfast on Pluto (2005) – the lugubrious-faced Belfast actor apparently adds some talismanic luck to the artistic success of Jordan’s work.  The Rea-less Mona Lisa (1986) is an outstanding exception; but, looking at the likes of High Spirits (1988), We’re no Angels (1989) and The Brave One (2007), none of which had him on board, the general rule for Jordan’s films seems to be, no Rea, no good.

 

Sheila Keith and Pete Walker.

 

A combination of exploitation cinema and social commentary, British director Peter Walker’s 1970s horror movies were memorably grim – serving up (for the time) disturbingly graphic violence, attacking institutions like the judiciary and the Catholic church, and generally showing how depressingly grotty life was in 1970s Britain.  What helped their impact immeasurably was his repeated casting of Scottish actress Sheila Keith, familiar to several generations of British TV viewers for her appearances as prim ladies of a certain age (often aristocrats or nuns) in cosy situation comedies like The Liver Birds, Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em, Rings on their Fingers, The Other ‘Arf, Bless Me Father, Never The Twain, A Fine Romance and The Brittas Empire.  But there was nothing cosy about the chilling harridans whom Keith played for Walker, in House of Whipcord (1974), in House of Mortal Sin (1975) and most subversively in Frightmare (1974), in which her Dorothy Yates character shifted gears between being a confused, pathetic, middle-aged housewife and a demented brain-eating cannibal.  Apparently, she found these roles liberating compared to her normal acting fare.  And the now-classic stills of Keith in Frighmare, wielding a Black-and-Decker drill, grinning, and splattered with a victim’s cerebral tissue, suggest an actress who enjoyed her work.

 

(c) Miracle

 

Walker cast her in two later horror movies, 1978’s The Comeback and 1982’s House of the Long Shadows, but neither was to the standard of their earlier work.  The Comeback at least has an interesting idea – an elderly couple (one of whom is Keith) take gruesome revenge on a faded rock star whom they believe induced their daughter to commit suicide.  Confronting the rocker at the end, Keith admonishes him in a hate-filled voice for his decadence and depravity and even his lewd bodily ‘contortions’ onstage.  This would’ve worked if the rock star had been played by someone properly decadent like Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop but, laughably, he’s played by Jack Jones, housewives’ favourite and singer of the Love Boat theme.  Jones’s performance was likened by one critic to a ‘hibernating bear’.

 

Roy Kinnear and Richard Lester.

 

The portly and eternally flustered-looking comic actor Roy Kinnear was a fixture in the films of American-based-in-Britain director Richard Lester during most phases of Lester’s career.  Kinnear turned up in the second of the movies Lester directed with the Beatles, 1965’s Help!, then accompanied Lester when he moved on to directing the surrealist black comedies 1967’s How I Won the War and 1969’s The Bed Sitting Room, and then provided comic relief in Lester’s The Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers in 1973 and 1974.  Around this time too, Lester cast Kinnear in his British disaster movie Juggernaut (1974), giving him a role with more depth than usual – he played Curtain, the luckless entertainments officer who has to keep a cruise-liner-load of passengers amused after it transpires that a terrorist has placed six bombs on board the ship.

 

Only during Lester’s box-office peak – 1980’s Superman II and 1983’s Superman III – did Kinnear fail to make an appearance in his old friend’s films.  The two were reunited in 1988 for a belated second sequel to The Three Musketeers, The Return of the Musketeers, but tragedy awaited.  During filming in Spain, Kinnear was thrown from a horse and suffered a broken pelvis.  The following day, in hospital, he died of a heart attack.  Lester was so upset by the experience that, apart from a concert film for Paul McCartney, 1991’s Get Back, he hasn’t directed a movie since.

 

(c) United Artists