The film is based on the werewolf story of the same name in Angela Carter's 1979 short story collection The Bloody Chamber. Carter herself co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan, based on her own short story and her earlier adaptation of The Company of Wolves for radio.
Carter's first draft of the screenplay, which contains some differences from the finished film, has been published in her anthology The Curious Room (1996).
In the present day, a young girl named Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) dreams that she lives in a fairytale forest with her parents (Tusse Silberg and David Warner) and sister (Georgia Slowe), but one day her sister is killed by wolves. While her parents are mourning, Rosaleen goes to stay the night with her grandmother (Angela Lansbury), who knits a bright red shawl for her granddaughter to wear. The superstitious old woman gives Rosaleen an ominous warning, to beware men whose eyebrows meet. Rosaleen returns to her village, but finds that she must deal with the advances of an amorous boy (Shane Johnstone). Rosaleen and the boy take a walk through the forest, but the boy discovers that the village's cattle have come under attack from a wolf. The villagers set out to hunt the wolf, but once caught and killed, the wolf's corpse transforms into that of a human being.
Rosaleen later takes a basket of goods through the woods to her grandmother's cottage, but on her way she encounters an attractive huntsman (Micha Bergese), whose eyebrows meet. He challenges her, saying that he can find his way to her grandmother's house before she can, and the pair set off. The hunter arrives at Rosaleen's grandmother's house first, where he reveals his bestial nature and kills her. Rosaleen arrives later and discovers the carnage, but her need to protect herself is complicated by her desire for the hunter. In the ensuing exchange, Rosaleen accidentally injures the huntsman with his own rifle. Upon this blow, the hunter contorts in pain and transforms into his wolf shape. Rosaleen takes pity on the wounded beast, noting that his pack could leave him behind. She sits down, and begins petting the wolf kindly and tenderly while telling him a story.
Ultimately the villagers arrive at the house some time later, looking for a werewolf within. Instead, they discover that Rosaleen herself has become a werewolf. Together, she and the huntsman escape to the forest, joined by a growing pack.
Back in the present day, Rosaleen awakes with a scream, and discovers wolves outside her house, followed by their breaking through the window of her bedroom.
Perrault's Le Petit Chaperon Rouge is then heard being read, with the moral warning girls to beware of charming strangers.
Throughout the course of the film, a number of stories are interspersed into the main narrative as tales told by several of the characters:Granny's tale to Rosaleen — A young groom (Stephen Rea) is about to bed his new bride (Kathryn Pogson) when a "call of nature" summons him outside. He disappears and his bride is terrified to see wolves howling outside. A search the following day yields a wolf pawprint only. Years later, she remarries and has children, only to have her original husband finally return. Angered at her having had children with a new husband, the groom transforms into his werewolf form, but is slain when the new husband (Jim Carter) returns.
Granny's second tale to Rosaleen — A young man is walking through the enchanted forest when he encounters the Devil (Terence Stamp), anachronistically arriving in a Rolls-Royce chauffeured by the actress playing Rosaleen in a blonde wig. The Devil offers the boy a transformative potion, which he rubs onto his chest, causing hair to sprout rapidly. The boy is pleased, but shortly thereafter vines grow swiftly from the ground, twining around his legs and trapping him. He wails in protest and fear, his face distorting with his cries, anguished visage appearing in Rosaleen's bedroom mirror at the end of that dream sequence.
Rosaleen's story to her mother — A woman (Dawn Archibald) who lived in a valley "done a terrible wrong" by a rich, young nobleman (Richard Morant) turns up visibly pregnant at his wedding party "to put wrong to right". She calls out the nobleman and the rest of the nobles for their bigoted actions, and further denounces them by declaring "the wolves in the forest are more decent". She then reveals that she is an enchantress and magically transforms the groom, the bride, and the other nobles into wolves. They flee into the forest as the enchantress laughs, but afterwards the enchantress commands that the wolves "serenade" her and her child each night.
Rosaleen's story to the huntsman/wolf — A she-wolf from the world beneath arrives at a village. Despite meaning no harm, she is shot by a villager. She reveals herself in her human form (Danielle Dax) to an old priest (Graham Crowden), who takes her in and bandages her wound. Although touched by the priest's kindness and actions, she feels she is not fit to stay. Ultimately, after some time, she returns to her world through the village well.
Sarah Patterson as Rosaleen
Angela Lansbury as Granny
David Warner as Father
Tusse Silberg as Mother
Micha Bergese as Huntsman (his first role in a feature film)
Brian Glover as Amorous Boy's father
Graham Crowden as Old Priest
Kathryn Pogson as Young Bride
Stephen Rea as Young Groom
Georgia Slowe as Alice, Girl Killed by Wolves
Susan Porrett as Amorous Boy's mother
Shane Johnstone as Amorous Boy
Dawn Archibald as Witch Woman
Richard Morant as Wealthy Groom
Danielle Dax as Wolfgirl (a non-speaking role)
Jim Carter as Second Husband (uncredited)
Terence Stamp as The Devil (uncredited)
Angela Carter, author of the original short story "The Company of Wolves", worked with director Neil Jordan on the script for the film. This was Carter's first experience of writing for film. However, it was also only Jordan's second feature film as director.
Whilst ultimately based upon the short story of the same name from The Bloody Chamber, the plot of the film bears closer resemblance to Angela Carter's 1980 adaptation of "The Company of Wolves" for radio, which introduced such elements as the additional stories being told within the narrative by the characters themselves, such as Granny. Originally, these stories had been placed before the main narrative.
Carter and Jordan met in Dublin in 1982 to discuss extending Carter's radio drama adaptation of her own story, which Jordan called "too short for a feature film".
In an L.A. Weekly interview published to correspond with the film's US debut, Jordan said: "In a normal film you have a story with different movements that program, develop, go a little bit off the trunk, come back, and end. In this film, the different movements of the plot are actually separate stories. You start with an introduction and then move into different stories that relate to the main theme, all building to the fairy tale that everybody knows. The opening element of the dreamer gave us the freedom to move from story to story." According to Jordan, it was he who suggested adding the frame story to the narrative: that of the dreaming girl Rosaleen in the modern day. This makes clear the story's focus on subconscious fears and desires. It also gives the film what Jordan called "a Chinese box structure." This structure was supposedly based upon the structure of the film The Saragossa Manuscript, which both Jordan and Carter had seen.
The script reached its third draft by July 1983.
Carter's proposed ending for the film would have featured Rosaleen diving into the floor of her bedroom and being swallowed up as by water. In the DVD commentary for the film, Jordan notes that the limited technology of the time prevented the production of such a sequence, whereas later CGI effects would in fact make it quite simple. The original screenplay (as presented in The Curious Room) also featured an additional story being told by the huntsman, a very different final tale by Rosaleen (reminiscent of Carter's "Peter and the Wolf" from her collection Black Venus) and a scene set in a church with an animal congregation.
The budget was provided by ITC Distributors.
The Company of Wolves was filmed in Shepperton Studios in England. The film's cast was primarily made up of British actors. Sarah Patterson made her screen debut, despite being much younger than the kind of actress the casting director had been looking for, and likely too young to understand some of the film's more adult concepts. Her youth also meant having to make special arrangements with her school in order for her to be away for nine weeks while shooting took place. Northern Irish actor Stephen Rea had already worked with director Neil Jordan in Angel and would later work with him again in The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire and Breakfast on Pluto, amongst others.
Jordan worked for several weeks in pre-production with artist filmmakers Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson to create hundreds of detailed storyboard drawings. Also involved with production was art director/production designer Anton Furst, who would later go on to work on Tim Burton's Batman. The film's visuals were of particular importance, as Jordan explains:
The visual design was an integral part of the script. It was written and imagined with a heightened sense of reality in mind.
In the DVD commentary, Jordan notes the difficulty of having to create the look of the film on a limited budget, having to create a fairytale forest out of essentially "twelve trees". He nevertheless succeeded in creating a sunless, mystical, wondrous and claustrophobic setting saturated with fantastic elements and symbols.
The script calls for a great number of wolves to appear. Due to budgetary constraints and other factors such as cast safety, most of the 'wolves' shown in the film are in fact evidently Belgian Shepherd Dogs, mainly Terveurens and Groenendals, whose fur was specially dyed. In the DVD commentary for the film, Jordan notes the bravery of young star Sarah Patterson when acting amongst the genuine wolves. Using particular light angles, the eyes of both real and "shepherd" wolves are made to glow dramatically in the film.
Jordan notes how Carter was "thrilled with the process" of making a film, as she "had never really been involved with one." After the film, Jordan and Carter looked for other projects which they could work on together. However, no others came to fruition, partly because of Carter's later illness. According to Jordan, he and Carter discussed a possible adaptation of Vampirella, Carter's radio play which served as the original version of her short story "The Lady of the House of Love" from The Bloody Chamber. This is not to be confused with the actual film Vampirella, released in 1996 and based upon the comic book character of the same name.
The film received its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada on 15 September 1984. It was released in the United Kingdom on 21 September and was released in the United States on 19 April 1985 where it was shown in 995 theatres.
The film was distributed in the United States by Cannon Films. Jordan notes that Cannon pushed the concept of the film as primarily a horror film. Jordan maintains that it is not a horror film and that such a label might actually be misleading to audiences.
The film was later released on VHS in numerous countries. A Region 1 DVD release came several years later on 15 October 2002. A Region 2 special edition version of the film was released on 17 October 2005, approximately 20 years after the film's initial release in theatres. This special edition came in a metal case and included an audio commentary by director Neil Jordan, stills galleries, the film's theatrical trailer and a printed "Behind the Scenes Dossier". This special edition version was also released on Universal Media Disc for the Sony PlayStation Portable on 30 January 2006. The film was released on Blu-ray in 2007 in United Kingdom by ITV. On 9 January 2015 the film was screened on 35mm in the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, New York.
Feminist critic Maggie Anwell decries the film for its over-emphasis on bloody werewolf special effects, but another, Charlotte Crofts, argues that the film is a sensitive adaptation of Carter's reworking of Charles Perrault's Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale.
In April 1985, upon the film's US debut, Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, and called it a "disturbing and stylish attempt to collect some of the nightmares that lie beneath the surface of "Little Red Riding Hood."
Years later, Louise Watson, writing for BFI Screenonline, said Neil Jordan "evokes an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere for the film's heightened reality. Its otherworldly scenery and costumes seem to have been inspired by fairytale illustrations, mixed with the studio-bound visual style of Hammer horror. The Hammer-like theatrical forest creates a sense of brooding claustrophobia where no sunlight can reach, accentuating Rosaleen's trapped existence. An intensely visual film, teeming with rich symbolism and imagery, the BAFTA-winning settings and special effects dominate the film, often at the expense of the (perhaps deliberately) underdeveloped characters."
Financially, the film only just broke even on its opening weekend in the US, having been made for approximately $2 million and taking $2,234,776 in 995 theatres. However, in total, the film took over $4 million in the US
Critics generally responded especially positively to the film's aesthetics. The film won one award for best film and best special effects and was nominated for four BAFTAs for costume design, make up, production design/art direction and special visual effects.
A soundtrack album, featuring the George Fenton score from the film, was released on 15 February 2000.Track listing
- "The Message And Main Theme"
- "Rosaleen's First Dream"
- "The Story of the Bride And Groom: The Village Wedding/The Return Of The Groom"
- "The Forest And The Huntsman's Theme"
- "The Wedding Party"
- "The Boy And The Devil"
- "One Sunday Afternoon"
- "All The Better To Eat You With: Arriving At Granny's Cottage/The Promise And Transformation"
- "The Wolfgirl"