The Bloody Chamber is a regular column focusing on aspects of fantasy, folklore and fairy tale in Gothic cinema.
Little girls, this seems to say
Never stop upon your way
Never trust a stranger friend
No-one knows how it will end
As you’re pretty, so be wise
Wolves may lurk in every guise
Now as then, ’tis simple truth
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.
Dark, provocative, brimming with Freudian subtext, The Company of Wolves (1984) comes packed with undertones of female sexuality and hidden meaning. As a horror film it stands out from the rest of the pack in the werewolf subgenre; just like the lycanthrope, neither one thing (pure genre film) nor the other (coming of age drama). Based on a screenplay by the British writer Angela Carter, the author’s feminist themes and luscious take on contemporary Gothic runs rife within the picture. When combined with director Neil Jordan’s bold imagery the film becomes fuelled with an intensity that appears unrivalled in its era. This article explores some of that power, to discover just what made Angela Carter’s take on the feminine Gothic so transgressive, while examining how Neil Jordan was able to translate the original concepts, from Carter’s strong script, into the making of one of the most outstanding British Gothic fantasy films of all time.
It would be fair to say by 1984 gothic as a pure cinematic concept was all but done and dusted in British film (for a time at least). Hammer Horror had ruled as reigning monarchs from the late 1950’s to the late 1970’s but a huge move in audience tastes that now demanded more sex, violence and realism. This need was being met by Stateside producers who were happy to shovel artefacts of the Golden Age of the slasher film into the mouths of hungry cinema goers. Jordan’s The Company of Wolves went against this shift in the tide. The film harks back to traditional Gothic on a visual level, and lacks the nudity inherent in genre film of the time. Because of this the director has argued the film was never intended as a horror film; marking out its allegiance with German expressionism, Polish surrealism (The Saragossa Manuscript’s puzzle box framework in particular), the Corman/Poe features, traditional Hammer horror and big budget fantasy films, as the main inspirations behind the imagery involved; while stating the focus was always on the coming of age aspects of Carter’s original prose, rather than anything that set out to be scary or shocking.
Ironically Carter’s text was shocking for its time. In some circles, her feminist ideology, celebration of Sadean sex and violence, Freudian subtext, and emphasis on eroticism and female sexuality, was a step too far. It is for her reworking of traditional fairy tales in the landmark text The Bloody Chamber (1979) for which the author is most known. Carter took the original elements of tales such as Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, and mixed in baroque Gothic horror, graphic sex and violence and transgressive gender roles to reinvent the stories with a feminist edge. Here the women were agents in their own journeys of sexual discovery. They were able to subvert the moral rules to take control of their own “happy endings”; they were curious, sexual, and powerful. In one of Carter’s takes on Little Red Riding Hood, The Company of Wolves, Red is not a lamb to the slaughter. In fact as the story comes to a head Carter illustrates this fact in the line “The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat”. The metaphor secreted throughout the traditional tale that young girls must keep away from the (carnal) beast of the man, is not so veiled with Carter; the author making reference to the size of the wolf’s penis specifically in part of the text, to illustrate the point in her own inimitable way. Yet Red is not frightened of the wolf as she should be, in fact she identifies with the nature of the wolf; as she looks out the window to see the pack howling in the cold, she sympathises with them. As she strips for the wolf and throws away her worldly garments, she becomes the wolf, and tames her male counterpart in the process, embracing her own animalistic call of the wild in order to do so.
Coming of age and the exploration of blossoming female sexuality is a theme rampant in the work of Carter; as is indeed the relationship between woman and the inner beast (and the sexual connotations this euphemism carries). For example in her 1974 story Master— part of the Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces collection— a young mute slave girl is transformed into a powerful animal able to escape the sexual violence she is subjected to, by killing her master and escaping into the forest. The Bloody Chamber contains a number of stories that revolve around the same motifs; The Courtship of Mr Lyon— where a beast becomes a human for his lover (Beauty and the Beast), and The Tiger’s Bride— where a women becomes a beast for her lover (again Beauty and the Beast); meanwhile in the disturbing, The Erlking, a woman is stripped of her skin to be turned into a bird. While no less than three tales are based on Little Red Riding Hood; The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves and Wolf Alice. Her later short story collection Black Venus (1985) offered up yet another variant of the werewolf tale in the form of Peter and the Wolf: based on the premise of a baby girl being snatched up after her mother is eaten and reared by the wolves who made her an orphan; a thread of thinking that was first explored in the original screenplay for The Company of Wolves. And Carter’s most Freudian novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), contains a particularly graphic brothel scene whereby the prostitutes contained within are presented as bizarre hybrids of woman and beast. For Carter the beast and body can take on a number of meanings which relate to sexuality and freedom, or in the case of The Erlking, sexuality and entrapment. According to the writer (quoted from New Society 1976: The Better to Eat you With ,reproduced in Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings) the fairy tale comes bursting with sexual connotations “phallic symbols” “archaic patterns of ritual initiation” “pubertal rites” “virgin martyrs and sacrificial victims” or “sexual trauma and awakening” . Such a canvass was ripe for the picking for the author’s wildly imaginative and transgressive sexualised explorations: Carter stating in an interview when talking about The Bloody Chamber “ I was using the latent content of those traditional stories, and that latent content is violently sexual” (Kerry Goldsworthy, Angela Carter, Meanjinn, March 1985).
As well as being a novelist, and a journalist, Carter was a big advocate of radio drama and wrote a number of scripts throughout her career. This is where The Company of Wolves first started its transition to the big screen; in the form of an half an hour spoken word play. The original short story narrated three tales— which later made it into the finished feature— there is the story of a wolf lured into a pit, only to be killed and turn into a man; the story of a women who turns a wedding reception into wolves, and then there is the tale of a man who disappears on his wedding night only to arrive home some years later as a wolf— the plot finally returning to the traditional Red Riding Hood framework; albeit with Carter’s feminist edged spin. This was combined with framing of the character of Granny relating these stories, to her young charge; to warn the girl of the danger of the wolf. The radio play concludes with the familiar trek to Granny’s house where she meets the creature through which her sexual nature would be fully realised. Carter met director Neil Jordan when she was visiting Dublin and the two struck upon the idea to develop Angela’s play into a feature film; Jordan later travelling to the author’s home in London, where they would work on the script together.
The film script remains faithful to the original elements in Carter’s short story. It also contained notes found in Wolf Alice, and The Werewolf, and well as traces of the story that would later become Peter and the Wolf. The original screenplay, adapted for shooting, featured this story in a much more fleshed out form; the result of which was removed in favour of the Girl Wolf segment written by Neil Jordan. What is interesting is while Jordan has been generous talking about his influences in home video commentary, he fails to mention the direct reference seen in his authored vignette— of a white flower turning to blood red when the wolf girl cries on it— the visual appearing to pay direct homage to Czech Gothic fantasy horror, Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970). The link between Angela Carter and Valerie has been well documented. As Tanya Krzywinska outlines in her article Transgression, transformation and titillation (Kinoeye, September 2003) “Jireš’ film was screened at the National Film Theatre in London soon after it was made, and according to Roz Kaveney, Carter was present and impressed with it. Jireš’ and Carter each make the rite of passage into sexuality the very centre of their tales. Both have heroines who “run with the tigers” (or wolves; in the case of Valerie—the weasel), rather than becoming their sacrificial victims.” There is no doubt that although Valerie and her Week of Wonders takes on a more fluid and surreal narrative structure the two films do bear some similar thematic concepts- mainly surrounding the process of a young girl negotiating a new identity based on the power of sex. And while slightly different in tone, the bold gothic imagery involved with both, and the common bonds, make them perfect companions for a double bill.
Jordan was able to keep Carter’s Freudian aspects as central to the plot by using the wrap around structure of a girl dreaming; through this medium the film explores the dynamics of family relationships as well as sexualised motifs. This begins with Roseleen— a character in the modern world— who lies asleep in a typical teenager’s bedroom, in a large sprawling manor house. As her sister attempts to awaken her, the idea of family conflict is introduced. An obvious distance from the central hub of the family is indicated by the remoteness of the girl’s secluded bedroom; especially as the camera tracks a series of winding corridors before arriving at her door. As Roseleen slips into her private dream world, we again meet her sister where she is terrorised by a large teddy bear, and a life sized sailor doll in the midst of a creepy looking forest. Before being killed by wolves— references to German expressionism run riot in this scene; demonstrated in offbeat angles and chiaroscuro lighting. As the story develops it dives right into a fully-fledged dream, a fairy-tale world set in period costume where Rosaleen— now without an annoying sister— is free to enjoy the closeness of her family; especially relationships with her mother and grandmother: with three generations of the female presented in strong characterisations, perhaps in reference to the maiden, the mother and the crone, we see a female character angle rarely exploited in genre film. What is most unfortunate is the removal of Carter’s original ending in the screenplay which was an attempt to really hammer home the Freudian aspects at play. It was to involve the modern day Roseleen awakening from her dream, to jump from her bed into a pool of water, disappearing into nothing, as the floor became solid again; two wolves— male and female— would enter the room to explore as a parting shot. Jordan wanted to shoot the ending as Carter intended, however the practical nature of this made it un-workable, and therefore it was altered to fit budgetary and technological limitations.
Regardless of these limits— The Company of Wolves had a modest budget of around £2.3 million— Jordan, with the exquisite production design of Anton Furst, created the perfect gothic fantasy world on soundstages at Shepperton Studios. The main setting conjures a folk horror infused village setting, surrounded by ominous, fog shrouded forest; evoking a dread infused ambience and nightmarish world that would not be out of place in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. A strong cast, headed by Sarah Patterson as Roseleen —in her debut role—Angela Lansbury as Granny, and British talent such as David Warner (father) and Brian Glover ensure that matters never wander into camp territory; even when performances involve tongue in cheek lines like the now immortal “never meet a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle” or the slightly more sinister “your kind are hairy on the inside”. Surprisingly gory given the lack of era-driven horror themes the film is also marked out by its impressive animatronic effects; especially the wolf transformations by an uncredited Toby Philpott who worked on other cult fantasy epics The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986).
Since her premature death on the 16th February 1992 (aged just 51) the significance of the legacy Angela Carter left to the world of fiction— in the arena of magical realism, feminist fiction, and contemporary Gothic- is finally becoming fully realised. Although she also harboured a fierce passion for cinema, it is a shame that her work in this arena is limited to two projects. The Company of Wolves (1984) and The Magic Toyshop (1987)— adapted from her 1967 novel of the same name. It is perhaps for this fact that The Company of Wolves’ filmic counterpart is something of a beautiful anomaly in the world of genre film. Wrapped up in Jordan’s gorgeous Gothic pomp it transcends the limitations of its humble background as a short story into the realm of true fantasy and fairy tale. Yet, the story’s true power comes from deep within, from the bold and bloody expansive imagination of Angela Carter. Carter once said, “the short story is not minimalist, it’s rococo. I feel in absolute control. It is like writing chamber music rather than symphonies”. Yet, when she joined forces with Neil Jordan the orchestra played her notes, and made the company of wolves sing just that. And if we can take anything from its lyricism we must remember, never stray from the path, and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle. Not least unless we want to meet the beast, for that’s when the real magic begins.
 The Company of Wolves (1984) (ITC/Cannon)
 Carter, Angela (1979) The Bloody Chamber (or The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories). Gollancz
 Carter, Angela (2013) Shaking A Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings. Vintage Classics
 Krzywinska, Tanya (2003) Transgression, transformation and titillation: Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie a týden divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, 1970) https://www.kinoeye.org/03/09/krzywinska09.php