The 1980s were an incredible time for practical effects, and a great time for horror films. The unique and terrifying cinematic experiences made during this era — from The Thing to Hellraiser — owe much to masterful animatronics and other practical effects. But there’s one film that seldom gets brought up in the horror special effects conversation: The Company of Wolves.
There are three incredible human-to-wolf transformation scenes in Neil Jordan’s disturbing fairytale. While all are fine examples of the power of practical effects, I’ll focus on the first.
This scene is part of a tale that our protagonist Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) hears in a dream, where she lives in the 18th century with her grandmother (Angela Lansbury). The tale begins with sage advice (“Never trust a man whose eyebrows meet”). In it, a husband disappears on his wedding night, presumably taken by a pack of wolves. His wife eventually marries again and has children. But one day, her first husband returns in a frenzied state, angered more when he finds that she has a new husband and a family. He reveals his lupine nature in front of this frightened family, leading to the film’s first and most graphic transformation.
Once the husband starts writhing in pain, we think we know what to expect: he’ll drop to his knees, hair will start to grow, his fingers will elongate, maybe let out a howl here and there, etc. When he clutches his face and starts to rip off his skin, it’s a sign that this transformation will be anything but ordinary.
We don’t just simply see a man turn into a wolf; it’s a complete biological restructuring. We see him sinews and all, an element that makes this once familiar process fresh and unnerving. Like his wife and her children, we are trapped, forced to watch this painful transformation. Though the process itself only lasts a little over two minutes, it feels like an eternity. It hurts to watch this man turn into a monster.
The effects were spearheaded by Christopher Tucker, who had previously worked on the special effects makeup for The Elephant Man, and the “Mr. Creosote” scene in The Meaning of Life. He believed that seeing “another stretch effect” would be a disservice to the audience and instead wanted to make a point of showing the process in full. By implementing both makeup and animatronics, Tucker was able to create an expressive, fluid and visceral transformation (with a small budget and a small crew). Take the intricate movements that express the man’s physical pain. Or the way we see his muscles expand and contract with his labored breathing. Coupled with the gradual change from a human scream to a wolf howl, with pained gurgling in between, this scene is filled with details that are both gross and engrossing.
The film as a whole is a constant battle between the romantic and horrific elements of fairytale storytelling, exemplified in this scene in particular. As someone who was once traumatized by this movie, I can’t help but admire it now. It’s an unnerving piece of body horror, and one that deserves praise and a late night watch.