Book Update: Starburst Review

The first review of my Devil’s Advocates monograph on The Company of Wolves is in, courtesy of Starburst. And it’s a good one! According to author and critic Jon Towlson, it is ‘a meticulously researched, beautifully written and fascinating book.’ I’ve copied the full review below, and you can also check it out (along with a wealth of other film related reviews, news and features) over at Starburst, the world’s longest running magazine of cult entertainment.

At the time of its release in 1984, Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves received mixed reviews: it’s not a children’s film, critics complained, but it’s about fairytales; werewolves feature heavily but it’s not a horror film. Indeed, it’s a strange beast, as pointed out in this excellent new study by James Gracey (author of Kamera Books’ Dario Argento). ‘Part fairy tale, part werewolf film, part horror film, part feminist coming of age allegory’, Gracey approaches his monograph from all these angles; and from a beguiling, if flawed, film he has produced a meticulously researched, beautifully written and fascinating book. Particularly impressive - in such a slim volume of 128 pages - is the depth in which Gracey manages to cover all these facets. In his contribution to the Devil’s Advocates film book series, Gracey provides not just a detailed ‘making of’, but a complete background on the evolution of fairy tales in our culture (including, of course, the Red Riding Hood story in literature and film); a history of lycanthropy in folklore and the movies; a survey of female movie monsters over the years, and much more besides. It all makes for a hugely informative and highly satisfying read. 

Based on a series of short stories by Angela Carter (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan), Wolves was produced by Palace Pictures; one of Stephen Woolley’s first ventures into film production. In his opening chapter, Gracey documents the fascinating collaboration between Jordan and Carter as they adapted the story and the script-to-screen process of bringing Wolves into being as a studio-shot movie. Gracey cites amongst its cinematic influences such European art-house fantasies as Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), and Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), and these make for an intriguing comparison. Foundational to the film, though, are the fairy tales given a feminist slant by Carter in her source material. Gracey traces these tales to their printed and oral tradition before their popularisation by the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century as morality stories for aristocratic families and their children, identifying Red Riding Hood as not only central to Wolves but as one of the most enduring and provocative stories: its many cinematic guises are surprising - Freeway (1996), Little Erin Merryweather (2003) and Hard Candy (2005) amongst them. After analysing Wolves’ unique brand of feminism and dream logic, Gracey surveys ‘darkly sexual coming of age parables’ from The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944) to the controversial films of French director Catherine Breillat (by way of Anne Turner’s critically neglected Celia [1989]). A detailed analysis of international werewolf folklore is also included, spanning early medieval literature to landmark novels like Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris (1933). There’s a comprehensive overview of werewolf cinema, too, and in the final chapter, Gracey focuses on the sub-genre of female-centric ‘she-wolf’ stories in literature and film (and their association with ‘menstrual films’ like Carrie [1976]) which, naturally, includes the modern classic Ginger Snaps (2000). 

Gracey organises his material skilfully, so as to cover much fertile ground without ever losing focus on the main subject of Wolves. The litmus test of any study like this is how much it makes you want to watch the film(s) it analyses. Gracey’s writing is so insightful, and his enthusiasm for Wolves so infectious, that you will want to do just that. The Company of Wolves is ripe for re-evaluation and Gracey does it ample justice. Few film books can claim to be as definitive.

Review written by Jon Towlson.

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