Modern British Gothic is often characterised by its portrayal of the extent to which perversity and violence infiltrate the apparently safe spaces of British society, domesticity and culture. Angela Carter’s form of horror is based on the bizarre and excessive – it offers us a multi-layered, surreal nightmare which contains uneasy yet familiar resonances. She dismantles the stuff of myth and fairytale and unearths disturbing impulses and perverse sexual fantasies, digging behind our veneer of rationality to analyse our continuing fascination with the werewolf, the vampire, the deviant, the murderer.
At the time of its original release in 1984, Neil Jordan’s movie adaptation of Carter’s short story, The Company of Wolves was considered to be an innovative experiment in the fantasy genre, and to some degree this was true, but Jordan’s film also contained a variety of more familiar elements. There were nods to Joe Dante’s unconventional werewolf outing The Howling (1981) a visual style which owed much to the Powell and Pressburger’s colour extravaganzas of the 1950s and something of Jean Cocteau’s surreal film La Belle et la Bête (1946). The movie however is more than just a sum of its influences – co-written with the much-respected fablest Angela Carter herself, The Company of Wolves presents us with some distinctly Freudian imagery underpinning a reworking of the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
The film’s framework is an Alice-in-Wonderland type dream. The teen protagonist, Rosaleen, having locked herself in her bedroom after having rebuffed her sister’s command to ‘behave’ - begins to dream herself into the Red Riding Hood story. She creates a fairy-tale world inside her 20th Century bedroom and dreams herself into a storybook village in a time when folk tales comprised an oral culture which contained the beliefs and superstitions of simple people. The village is besieged by wolves who have, in her dream, already claimed and killed her sister. The traditional Red Riding Hood story is altered to fit this contemporary young girl’s own interior psychic needs. Here the werewolf has a more sexual undertone as the heroine, Rosaleen, is on the point of her own sexual awakening. A reinterpretation of the story is necessary, and the grotesque horror of being eaten alive by a lascivious wolf is defused as Rosaleen turns the tables and becomes a werewolf herself, thus ‘taming the beast’ and proving her ‘dream’ mother’s assertion, “If there’s a beast in man it meets its match in women too”. Instead of being devoured, Rosaleen comes to terms with the wolf inside the charming hunter she meets in the woods in such a way as to suggest that she is not so much accepting the bestiality she finds in men, but rather that she is becoming aware of the burgeoning power of her own sexuality. This story is more to do with subversive desires than fear of the predatory male. According to Angela Carter, the best thing a woman can do with myths and metaphors is to reclaim them for her own interpretation rather than accepting those fobbed off on her. She often uses ironic reversals of the common, socially constructed, version of horror which almost always renders a woman as a victim. In her version there is often instead the celebration of a dawning awareness of the strength of virginity or emergent female sexuality, as in the case of Rosaleen.
Virginity in myth often renders a girl ideally fitted to be a sacrificial victim in a system which sees virginity and the female body as a commodity, “The strong abuse, exploit and meatify the weak,” said De Sade, identifying the core of the tendency in culture to reduce the female body to merely a piece of meat - but Rosaleen ‘knew she was nobody’s meat’ and this is the challenge she holds up to the wolf. Werewolves in Carter’s stories appear as highly sexed, handsome young men (their eyebrows meeting suspiciously in the middle) and appear to want to devour her tender young girls sexually as well as literally. One of Carter’s aims is to demythologise and dismantle the myths and legends which shape our cultural perceptions. She likes to deconstruct the fictions related to sexuality and horror. She exposes the relationship between sex and power, between the erotic and the perverse and highlights the oppression and dehumanisation lurking in the mundane and the familiar. Carter manipulates the structures of Gothic-based romance tales and reappropriates them for a sexual politics which subverts the myths of the powerless role for women by turning the conventional dénouements on their heads, thus sidestepping one of the problems of reclaiming horror as a genre for women – which is the convention of the female victim (with its pornographic connotation - the essential powerlessness of the victimised, virginal girl is as much a feature of pornography as it is of Gothic horror).
Carter’s fiction disinters and utilises the stuff of dreams and myths and shows itself owing much to the psychological investigations of Freud, Jung and Klein. Like Bruno Bettelheim, whose work influenced The Bloody Chamber, Carter uses dream and fantasy to reflect inner experiences and also as ways of coping with the conscious world. As Freud was attempting to unravel the workings of the subconscious, Georges Méliès was simultaneously creating the magic of film. On film worlds can open and shift from one to another without verbal explanation – rather like a dream state. It can create links and references that emulate those created by the tangled workings and displacements of the subconscious mind. Angela Carter fell in love with the movies and appropriated their visual language in her recreation of this tale.
The delicate, dream-like, poetic world she imagined was recreated by the sensitive direction of Neil Jordan and contrasted with shocking horror effects produced by Chris Tucker’s spectacular wolf transformations - all flayed skin and splitting muscles. These sequences are not just audience pleasing set pieces in the manner of Joe Dante or John Landis, but are integrated into the fantastical scenario of the story. Those looking for a straightforward linear story in a movie will be frustrated - the city-futures trader I first saw this movie with called it ‘the biggest load of pretentions claptrap he’d ever seen’ (but then again, he married a woman whose favourite movie was ‘Pretty Woman’). Viewers with a need for something more challenging will be intrigued by Jordan’s ambitious adaptation, remembering that in Carter’s disturbing and subversive stories, the woods, the cottage, the ordinary house, may contain many hidden secrets - pits, chambers and staircases leading to underground dungeons where the bloodiest fantasies of the subconscious may be lying in wait for the unsuspecting reader.
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