Cinematic lycanthropy and monstrous femininity: a review of James Gracey’s The Company of Wolves

The Company of Wolves is a title in Auteur Publishing’s Devil’s Advocate series, which showcases a range of critical approaches to horror cinema. James Gracey’s text explores how the 1984 Neil Jordan film of the same name evokes fairy tales, horror, werewolf films, Freudian symbolism, and the Female Gothic.

Based upon three tales from Angela Carter’s 1979 collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber – ‘The Werewolf’, ‘The Company of Wolves’, and ‘Wolf-Alice’ – the film was scripted by Jordan along with Carter. Moving away from the kitchen-sink realism favoured by British cinema in the early eighties, Jordan’s film is described by Gracey as ‘a unique beast; part fairy tale, part werewolf film, part horror film, part coming feminist coming of age allegory’ (117).

Gracey is adept at identifying key themes in the 1984 film and exploring them in an accessible but thorough manner, forging links between images and ideas, and wider theoretical concepts. He shows that transformation and liminality sit at the heart of this film, in which a girl’s burgeoning sexuality emerges through feverish dreams, represented by the ‘metaphor for adult sexuality’ (8) and ‘tragic lover’, the werewolf. The significance of storytelling – which Gracey argues is central to The Company of Wolves – plays out on multiple levels due to the ‘Chinese puzzle-box’ effect of the film, which shows stories within dreams within stories.

Chapter One, ‘Once Upon a Time’, gives a brief biography of both Jordan and Carter, contextualising their work and identifying recurring themes and imagery used in their writing prior to working together. The chapter also explores their working relationship and time spent scripting The Company of Wolves. The development of the film – creating the set, casting, filming, scoring – and the film’s influences from the worlds of cinema, folklore, and art is also outlined in this chapter.

In the second chapter, ‘Telling Tales’, Gracey astutely notes that Jordan and Carter inversely use the fairy tale to ‘demythologise’ ‘culturally constructed notions’ (37) perpetrated by the format. To this end, the art of storytelling, a device through which the film discusses ideas of gender, sexuality, and identity, enables The Company of Wolves film to play with ‘the form of the fairy tale and its ideas regarding initiation, redemption and personal and social progress’ (37). Here, largely informed by the critical writings of Jack Zipes, Gracey examines the history and evolution of the fairy tale format and function as cultural conditioner or educator. This is a useful overview of the development of folklore from an oral tradition to a literary form, both in terms of function and social relevance, and its critical evaluation and categorisation.

‘Red Hoods, Dark Woods’, Chapter Three, examines the Little Red Riding Hood in more detail, exploring how Carter and Jordan subvert expectations of the tale as ‘familiar [literary] ground’. Carter’s 1979 retellings of the story emphasise female sexuality and experience, resisting the moral message of Charles Perrault’s 1697 publication ‘Le Petit Chaperon Rouge’ that ‘girls who invite strange men into their parlours deserve what they get’ and instead places the agency in the hands of the young girl, a theme more in keeping with the original tales of a brave peasant girl outwitting the wolf.

Following on from the previous chapter’s thorough outlining of the original Little Red Riding Hood tale’s translation to the silver screen, Chapter Four positions The Company of Wolves film as one of ‘a group of films which unravel as darkly sexual coming of age parables’ (76).

The Company of Wolves’ exploration of the empowerment of women is the topic of ‘Seeing Red’, which highlights the connection between Carter’s feminism and Jordan’s ‘similar predilection for deconstructing normative gender roles and sexuality’ (62). It suggests their joint belief that fairy tales, while possessing the ability to police identity, could also carry messages which would liberate confines of gender and sexuality. Illustrating this, Chapter Four explores Carter’s depiction of gender and female empowerment in the short stories which would be adapted into The Company of Wolves. The film is also contextualised within feminist discourse both in relation to contemporary analysis of folk tales, and Carter’s own fiction writings. Particularly interesting here is Gracey’s analysis of the film’s representations of both female and male characters, and how the binaries between the two social constructs are subverted by the imagery used on screen, as well as a discussion of the shift from the male gaze to the active female voice. The author also links Jacques Lacan’s mirror theory with the film’s representation of Rosaleen’s discovery of her identity.

‘The Big Bad Wolf’ is the topic of Chapter Five, which explores the cultural mythos of the werewolf from its early incarnations in the legends and poetry of antiquity, through its frequent depiction in medieval literature and resurgence in nineteenth century Gothic literature, and to its eventual home in cinema. Gracey links the ‘divided self’ of lycanthropy with Freudian notions of suppression, and suggests that early filmic representations of wolf men ‘help to establish the Freudian psychoanalytic aspects of the werewolf in cinema’ (93).

Gracey contextualises The Company of Wolves with other werewolf films of its era, particularly Joe Dante’s 1977 film The Howling, both of which parallel sexuality with lycanthropy. The ideas this example evokes are returned to in Chapter Six, ‘A She-Wolf Came..’, in which the author explores feminine identity within the gender theory contexts of Chapter Four, suggesting that The Company of Wolves is atypical in its use of the image of the lycanthrope to demonstrate feminine puberty and developing adult sexuality. Here, Gracey explores literary and filmic representations of women wolves – which have evolved over time, eventually entering a ‘hypersexualised’ mode in the twentith century – linking these characters to theories of fear of the female ‘other’, body horror, and Barbara Creed’s ‘monstrous feminine’. ‘Happily Ever After…’, Chapter Seven, gives an overview of the critical response to the film and its impact on wider culture, from cinema to music.

Gracey’s text The Company of Wolves is a useful and interesting overview of the myriad references and inspirations which conjured the film from the minds of Jordan and Carter. Moving from an overview of the production of the film, to an examination of the fairy tale format and particularly the mythos of Little Red Riding Hood, which is linked to themes of female empowerment and the image of the female werewolf, Gracey connects readings with concepts to mark the shape of this particular filmic beast. It brings together a variety of critical sources to inform its evaluation of The Company of
Wolves film’s development, creation, manifestation and reception, while allowing the aesthetic and narrative character of the film to shine through, informed and enhanced by Gracey’s analysis.

Author: James Gracey

Publisher: Colombia University Press (2017), 120pp.

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[This story was published in Issue 15, the Summer 2019 edition of the Gramarye, the journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. Pick up a copy from here: store.chi.ac.uk/product-catalogue/sussex-centre-for-folklore/journals/preorder-gramarye-issue-15.]

About Emily Turner

By day, journalist. By night, postgraduate researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex, studying the medical humanities in the Victorian period. Occasional artist.

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