April 23, 1985 [The Company of Wolves]

Watching The Company of Wolves, I was pretty sure I was supposed to be thinking of Bruno Bettelheim and his book The Uses of Enchantment: the Grimm tale as instruction, an opportunity for the child to learn that the evolved Little Pig is safer than his primitive, less reality-principled house-of-straw counterpart. Or better yet: Little Red Riding Hood eager to be eaten up by her wolfish father--who has already obliterated the sexless grandmother, paving a toothy way for Red's own bold consumption of her virginity. This is the movie's pleasures, all laid out, so to speak, in a hairy, gooey splendor worthy of An American Werewolf in London's or The Howling's agonizing prosthetic enlargements.

But I shuffled Bettelheim off to the side: all I could think of was a short story by Shirley Jackson--that mad old suburbanite, raising little demons and rummaging around in the battered box for the unlucky winner of a pile of thrown stones. Thirty or more years ago, I think: "The Witch," about a little boy bored in a train and a nice old man with a cigar who delights the child with a little story of his own, about pinching his sister's head off and tearing her to pieces. The boy's mother steps in and banishes the smiling old devil--always courteous, soft-spoken, matter-of-fact--no dripping, fur-sprouting special effects necessary, just a smile and a story. The little boy understands, though, decides the old man was probably a witch, and promptly resumes his boredom.

I think this is where The Company of Wolves works best, with the grownup willing to tell a story, the grandmother eager to lay it on thick, leaving out no gory detail, delighted she can give her granddaughter the opportunity to eat and be eaten. But in the end I don't believe the not-so-little girl learns anything; the fairy tale is not school but an experience, like a long train ride with witches.


  1. A fascinating if not entirely successful film; still I think the set pieces and conceits are worth the lumpiness of the whole. I like your writeup and have always wondered what a central book would be for the fairy-tales-as-metaphors-for-adult-dangers school of thought. Would the Bettelheim be it? That sort of thing has always fascinated me.

    I did a visual tribute to The Company of Wolves last September, and it leant itself to such treatment most readily. My favorite moments were the transformations into wolves (cooler, for my money, and certainly more creative than those in either The Howling or American Werewolf in London) and all the spooky sexual imagery, like the egg with the little fetus inside. I also like the moment when the camera lifts out of the young girl's bedroom to peer at the foreboding woods outside as the sounds of screams and howls rise on the soundtrack...

  2. The most "efficient" fairy-tale analysis I ever saw was a Playboy cartoon from the '70s: Pinocchio is on all fours, hidden beneath the folds of the Blue Fairy's gown, who leans back and murmurs, "Tell me another lie, Pinocchio." Ahem.

    As far as Bettelheim goes: The strangeness surrounding his life and work may be more telling than his book. This is the guy who asserted that autism was caused by a lack of maternal affection. Poor Temple Grandin's mom--and how many more? Scary business, boys n girls.


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