Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sweetest Tongue Has Sharpest Tooth: A Look at The Company of Wolves

"Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet." -(Granny) The Company of Wolves

March 11 will see the release of a new Little Red Riding Hood movie. Oh excuse me. A new Red Riding Hood movie. Apparently, the Little wasn't edgy enough for this edgy new retelling. I would be lying if I said I'm not ridiculously excited about Hollywood's current love affair with fairy tales (Red Riding Hood being just one of many fairy tale movies coming out this and next year). But I would also be lying if I said this particular fairy tale movie didn't make me a LITTLE (ahem) nervous.

I don't mean to come down on a movie I haven't seen. To its credit, Red Riding Hood has a lot going for it. First of all, Amanda Seyfried plays Little Red (or just Red, I guess). Amanda Seyfried is one of my favorite young actresses out there today. I've been a fan since Season One of Big Love. She has such a natural quality to her. All her performances seem so effortless. And she's got one of the most expressive faces in Hollywood. As if Amanda Seyfried weren't enough, we have Julie Christie, Virginia Madsen, Lukas Haas and Gary Oldman. One of those people would make any movie worth a second look, and all together, they form a pretty stellar cast. Plus the movie looks GORGEOUS. Here's the trailer.

So we have a fairy tale movie! And not just any fairy tale movie. A Little Red Riding Hood movie! If you have read more than one entry of this blog or had more than one conversation with me, you know I really dig fairy tales, and I dig Little Red Riding Hood especially. So why am I nervous? Well, as hinted earlier, this version has promised to be "edgy." Too edgy for the word Little (I promise I'll stop now). Too edgy even to be a fairy tale. Now it's a "700 year old legend" come to life. Now it's a horror movie. We've got murders and Gary Oldman making speeches and those ever reliable Wicker Man-ish animal masks (though nowhere near as scary as the masks worn in The Wicker Man). And there's sex. Oooh. Courtesy of a love interest with really anachronistic hair (why did it have to be spikes?) reminiscent of somebody we all know. Somebody whose name rhymes with Bedward Sullen. I really hope he isn't the Wolf. It's too obvious (and he's way too young; the "Wolf" needs to be a considerably older man in my opinion). But he probably is. After all, she seems to have the hots for him, and the best kept secret in folklore is that Red Riding Hood (with or without the Little) is really about sex. A lot of fairy tales are really about sex, but now is not the time.

I've written about this before, so knock yourselves out if you're interested, but Little Red Riding Hood has frequently been interpreted as a metaphor for a young girl's sexual coming of age. A red cloak and a wolf in bed aren't exactly subtle as far as symbols go. Now as "edgy" as it seems, Red Riding Hood doesn't claim to be breaking new ground by acknowledging the existence of sex in a movie based on a "kiddie story," but it will surprise some people. It may even cause them to look at this famous story in a way they never thought of before. And that's where my anger kicks in, because when I was twelve, I experienced just such a revelation thanks to another movie called The Company of Wolves.

Based on stories from Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, a book that broke new ground in the genre of the twisted fairy tale, and directed by a pre-Crying Game, pre-Interview With the Vampire Neil Jordan, The Company of Wolves came out in 1984. I first saw it one long ago winter's night when I was about twelve. TNT used to show horror movies late every Saturday night and sometimes I stayed up to watch them to the sly. (Oh nostalgia!) I watched like a thing possessed, repulsed but also strangely riveted. I remember yelling at the screen, "You can't do that to a fairy tale!" I love how when I was eight and first read Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, I had no problem with Red shooting the Wolf in the head. In fact, it made me giggle like the sadist I was, but sex? A hint of sex was more than welcome, but not at the expense of my favorite fairy tale. Fairy tales belonged in the world of childhood, and sex sat squarely in the world of adults. Knowing I was the same age as the heroine freaked me out quite a bit too. I thought I hated it, but I couldn't get it out of my head. As the years passed, it never left, nagging at my psyche whenever I reread the story. Then when I was 15, I succumbed and rented it. And watched it over and over and over. It changed Little Red Riding Hood for me forever, and set me on the path to discovering the true heart of the fairy tale.

The Company of Wolves is about a twelve-year-old girl named Rosaleen who dreams herself into the story of Little Red Riding Hood after she gets her first period. You could say the whole movie is a metaphor for menstruation, but we'll ignore that for now. In Rosaleen's dreams, anything can happen: toys come to life, bird eggs hatch to reveal tiny babies that weep real tears, and wolves run rampant. After one of these wolves eats her older sister Alice, Rosaleen goes to stay with her grandmother while her parents grieve. Granny tells Rosaleen stories about werewolves and the threat they pose to innocent young girls. She also starts making her a red shawl with a hood. The shawl serves as a ticking clock, counting down to when Rosaleen will be tested with a wolf of her own.

As Granny and later Rosaleen tell stories about men and wolves, they come to life for us, creating stories within stories and dreams within dreams. We see a full moon ruin the wedding night of a young bride and groom, while a witch takes revenge on her former lover, and a priest cares for a wounded wolf-girl. The movie, and these sequences especially, thrive on ambiguity. Not only does The Company of Wolves require you to think, it requires you to use your imagination. There's a lot of weird stuff going on, but it all looks so beautiful you can't understand why you're so creeped out. For instance, there is a scene where the Devil shows up in this fairy tale forest in a Rolls Royce, and gives a bottle of liquid puberty to an unfortunate boy. It's probably the strangest moment in a strange movie, but the gorgeous image of modern day headlights flashing through an ancient, untouched forest keeps you spellbound. The actual story of Little Red Riding Hood doesn't kick in until the last half hour, but when it does, you're eager to see what happens to Rosaleen, who despite having been warned about unibrowed strangers for the past hour will still follow the first one she meets off the path.

The Company of Wolves has a unique perspective about werewolves and sexuality. I've never seen another movie that examines lyncanthropy as a singularly sexual thing. Appropriately, the only character who says the word "werewolf" is the Wolf himself. Granny and Rosaleen refer to them as wolves that are "hairy on the inside." The movie seems to argue that boys naturally become wolves when they become men, and their lust is what makes them so. In the beginning, judging from Granny's propaganda and the overall attitude of the characters, you expect the movie's message to be: men=animals, women=victims, sex=bad. That's what I took from it when I was a kid--what I could make heads or tails of, that is. But even then, I knew there had to be more to it than that. I knew I didn't get it. By 15, I got it. I think (and this is just my interpretation) the movie's real message is that a wolf (i.e. sex)--like getting your first period--is scary, because growing up is scary. Sometimes good scary, sometimes bad scary, but scary. And strange. Over the course of the movie, Rosaleen must confront the change that comes with growing up in several ways. It's not always bad, but it is always strange. It's important to remember that most of the movie is supposed to be a dream. With that in mind, it makes a lot more sense.

I've heard some critics argue that the movie works better without the dream setting, but I think it's vital to the story. Many fairy tales feel like dreams. They have that same strange, spellbinding quality. They're vague but fascinating, and they represent our greatest desires and fears. I've had dreams that have stayed with me for years. Fairy tales have stayed with their collective dreamers for centuries. After all, where else but in a nightmare could a girl mistake a wolf for her grandmother?

The Company of Wolves doesn't have the cult following it deserves because it's a hard movie to classify. It's not scary enough to be a horror movie, but it's too scary for the horror hating crowd. It's an intellectual psychological thriller that also happens to be very gory. It's a coming of age movie with no reassuring conclusions. It has moments of fun cheesiness and surprising sophistication. There's nothing about it I don't like. The production design and art design create a storybook otherworld that's both enchanting and sinister. Certain shots would be right at home alongside Arthur Rackham's classic illustrations. The score by George Fenton (who also did the score for Ever After, another of my beloved fairy tale films) is one of my all-time favorites.

Sarah Patterson (who was only twelve when this came out) delivers a remarkable performance as Rosaleen. She has such presence and an eerie maturity, but you never forget she's just a kid. I know I could never have pulled this movie off when I was that age. I couldn't even handle watching it at that age. Then we have the always spectacular Angela Lansbury in a really fun performance as Granny, with Tusse Silberg and my secret husband David Warner, both fantastic as Rosaleen's parents. Micha Bergese is scarily good as the Wolf/Hunstman, gradually devolving from a proper gentleman with alterior motives to a feral predator. The werewolf transformations may look a little funny to our CG infected eyes, but they were state of the art for their time and they remain some of the most creative special effects I've ever seen. Take another look at the poster. A WOLF IS CLIMBING OUT OF THAT MAN'S MOUTH. Just in case you didn't notice.

I also highly recommend reading "The Company of Wolves" (though I think you should read ALL the stories in The Bloody Chamber). I first read it when I was 15, and it remains one of my favorite short stories. Angela Carter's writing is an acquired taste, but I love it. Curiously, this movie is for the most part an incredibly faithful adaptation (not at all surprising considering Carter wrote the screenplay), but she changed the ending. It's fun to compare them.

I will go and see Red Riding Hood because I'm biologically obligated to and because I'm genuinely curious to see this classic story get yet another twist. I can't begrudge anything that gets people thinking about fairy tales. It may even lead a few to The Company of Wolves, and wouldn't that be wonderful?

P.S. When I showed this to a few friends in college, they agreed that if I were a movie it would be this one. I'm still not sure what this means or how to feel about it, but I hope it wasn't their way of telling me I needed to pluck my eyebrows.

P.P.S. It would also be wonderful if Gary Oldman turns out to be the Wolf. I think I would die (figuratively, of course). Or even Lukas Haas. Anybody but Spiky McAngst, but I get the feeling he's our contender.

I am reluctantly posting the trailer to The Company of Wolves (even though I am loving that screencap). It's one of those annoying trailers that distills the WHOLE MOVIE into three minutes. Do not watch it if you don't like spoilers.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Today Of All Days I Wish I Lived In Camelot

Of course, most days I wish I lived in Camelot, but today especially.

Why? Because in Camelot "the winter is forbidden till December, and exits March the 2nd on the dot."

Alas, I don't live Camelot. I live in New Jersey, and in New Jersey it's still cold, cold winter. Not as cold as it has been. Most of the monstrous snow has melted, but the wind has picked up with a vengence. In like a lion as they say. Boff.

Anyway, I can't be too disappointed because it gives me an excuse to watch this. I love the movie version of Camelot, and this is one of my favorite scenes. Everything about it is so beautiful, especially the ethereal Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere and Richard Harris, the Once and Future King Arthur. True, it's a little odd that they chose to set the scene in winter considering the song lyrics, but I wouldn't have it any other way. It looks so magical. And you can't throw snowballs at the meddlesome guards without snow, so there you go.

Happy March!