Double Feature

Fairy Tales June 22, 2021 
  

On The Company of Wolves and Lemora 

N

eil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves 

(1984) takes place almost entirely inside a dream. We never actually meet the person having it in “real life” — a teenage

girl named Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) — because, when we’re introduced to her, she’s just fallen asleep, a still-open copy of the horror book “The Shattered Dream” resting next to her head and the day’s clothes and makeup still on. All we know about her is that she has a contentious relationship with her older sister, Alice (Georgia Slowe), who calls Rosaleen a pest as she bangs on her door trying to wake her up, and that she is probably wealthy, given the sprawl of the countryside home in which she’s napping. Once we enter it, Rosaleen’s dream has the look of a fairy tale gone scary — thick fog, omnipresent cobwebs, oppressive red skies, shadow-dwelling creatures. What happens a few moments into it doesn’t soothe our immediate anxieties. We

watch a dream version of Alice run through a forest, getting more lost the more she darts around; her journey is cut short when a pack of wolves collectively decides to make her into dinner. 

 

The Company of Wolves is based on one of the tales featured in The Bloody Chamber (1979), an astounding collection of Angela Carter short stories that took classic folklore and fairy tales and amplified their more nightmarish aspects — bringing to the fore, as Carter has put it, “the latent content of traditional stories.” Alice’s vicious death at the beginning of the movie, whose hosting dream state appears to be set in an unspecified part of England in the 18th century, sets the standard for how violence is wrought in the film. It comes inexorably, but also has affixed to it, like most fairy tales, a moralistic message and/or allegorical meaning. Shortly after Alice’s death, her and Rosaleen’s perennially advice-giving grandmother (Angela Lansbury) notes that she wouldn’t have met her demise like this had she not strayed from the path paved for her: an ideology pushed back against consistently throughout the film both literally and subtextually.
   

If everything in The Company of Wolves takes place inside a dream, then Rosaleen could be accused of having an overactive imagination. Her own character arc most clearly resembles the familiar Little Red Riding Hood story — it’s reconfigured so that the wolf-as-sexual-predator undercurrent is no longer implied. But several more subplots crop up in the film, usually reenactments of stories Gran or Rosaleen cook up in front of attentive listeners. Almost all of them are fundamentally about the beastliness inherent to men; the film, co-written by Carter, expands on what she’d created on the page. 

 

The movie’s most memorable story-within-the-story stars Stephen Rea as one of those said man-beasts. In it, he plays a man who deserted his wife a few years ago only to return to her and then fully transform into a lobster-colored lycanthrope. The segment is a marvel of special effects; in its climactic moment, the beast is beheaded, and when his severed skull cannonballs into a nearby bucket of milk it reverts back to its human form — one nightmarishly indelible image in a movie that has many. The Company of Wolves 

was only co-writer-director Jordan’s second movie (he was better known at the time as a novelist), but you can tell you’re watching something made by a filmmaker already in command of his visual instincts. The movie has a colorful, handsomely artificial sense of the macabre like a classic Hammer horror movie. But this is only a comparison, not a way to say what Jordan is doing is somehow a regurgitation 

of or clear homage to the Hammer brand. His recreations of dark fairy-tale atmosphere — where everything that could be detected as a minor threat to the lead character is accentuated so that it pops out at you with perfect storybook fancifulness — feel entirely his own. 

 

The movie’s literal storytelling isn’t as strong as its visual storytelling; the film has a hold of our eyes, but the narrative moves so narcotically that, especially during the story-within-the-film vignettes, you might intermittently lose interest. (This doesn't happen in The Bloody Chamber: Carter's prose is invigoratingly fertile — you feel like you're in the presence of a true virtuoso.) Ponderousness in a movie is always helped when that ponderousness looks good, though — and I loved looking at The Company of Wolves 

enough to not mind that I wasn’t always interested in what was going on. But I suspect I won’t remember, months from now, that the movie can be unengaging. Its images sing too hauntingly, and its final image — of a wolf crashing through “the real” Rosaleen’s bedroom window, interrupting her slumber and perhaps marking the symbolic end of her innocence — is disturbing enough to give everything coming before it an additional weight.

Sarah Patterson and Angela Lansbury in The Company of Wolves.

T

o borrow a popular meme construction, Lemora (1973) is Little Red Riding Hood, but make it vampire. The movie, set in the 1920s, follows a 13-year-old choir girl named Lila (Cheryl Smith). With her long blonde hair,

affinity for billowing white dresses, and forever-serene face, the girl suggests an angel. That she is the lead in a horror movie promises that that youthful innocence will be imperiled. Years earlier, we learn that Lila’s gangster father (William Whitton) shot her adulterous mother to death and skipped town. Ever since, Lila has been living with the local priest (Richard Blackburn, who also directed and wrote the movie) whose affections for his adoptive daughter skew creepy. 

 

One morning, Lila receives a letter purportedly from her father — he wants to make amends. He isn’t coming to town, though; he requests that Lila, sans traveling companion and adult permission, come to a specific address in a village called Astaroth. (Lila might be more dubious about the odd request if she were aware that Astaroth is one of Hell’s Great Dukes according to demonological legend.) Keeping in mind her religious upbringing’s glorification of forgiveness, Lila takes up the offer, though in good conscience leaves behind a note for her guardian priest lest he need come pick her up. 
   

In this nightmarish movie, where almost all colors suffocate in chilly blue, Lila’s journey is sinister from the start. She is the bus ride over’s only passenger; rather than pass the occasional deer on the way to Astaroth, breezed-by forests are instead populated more often, bizarrely, with growling, zombie-like humans whose front incisors have sharpened into dangerous points — better, presumably, to chew flesh with. Lila doesn’t arrive at the address her father sent her; worryingly, she wakes up in what seems to be a cell on the same property.

 

When she escapes, it isn’t her father greeting her but a statuesque woman named Lemora (Lesley Gilb), who looks like the evil stepmother from Cinderella (1950) if her body had been drained of blood and her wardrobe of its color. This ostensible master of the house swears there isn’t anything to be worried about — itself an assurance whose overliteralness welcomes pause. But who couldn’t worry about the way the house swarms with seemingly undead children, how Lila’s father is nowhere to be found? The mansion’s paintings — all portraits — even work together to tell Lila to leave. Their frantic whispers, unfortunately, can’t compete against Lila’s good-natured naïvete. 
   

Lemora premiered, in its original nearly two-hour form, as a student film in the spring of 1973. It was subsequently picked up for distribution by Media Cinema Group at the tail end of 1974, got its running time cut substantially, and then ran briefly on the drive-in circuit. It shared the fate that befell most of its era’s B movies — forgotten about as quickly as it had played for audiences. But unlike its many promptly-discarded peers, it accrued a seismic-enough cult following over time. Its biggest admirers likened it to the surrealist movies of Luis Buñuel and Mario Bava (whose lead in 1966’s Kill, Baby, Kill looks an awful lot like Lila); its strengthening word of mouth helped give rise to remasterings and latter-day screenings. 

 

Cult worship, though, is a fickle thing. A movie oftentimes receives it, after all, because it can leave one side of the room cold and the other enthusiastic enough to warm up any of the space’s residual chill. You never know which side you'll end up on going in. I think Lemora is successfully creepy — one will have a hard time forgetting how it looks, with its almost exclusively black-and-white sets doused in ghostly blue light. But unlike, for instance, the thematically similar Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1971), its allegorization of a young girl’s loss of innocence feels weirdly impersonal — Lila’s point of view is little explored. Smith’s facial expressions so irregularly move beyond total dispassion that the character feels like a paper doll as vulnerable to the impulses of the person playing with her as she is unbothered by them — damaging when the narrative, which is intimated to potentially be an extension of its protagonist’s imagination rather than her reality, is so dependent on empathetic subjectivity.

The Company of WolvesB+

LemoraB-