With a narrative that recalls Canadian and Mexican horrors Ginger Snaps and We Are What We Are, the feature debut of Danish director Jonas Alexander Arnby, When Animals Dream, joins the burgeoning list of contemporary coming-of-age films with a framing device rooted in the macabre.
Like Ginger Snaps, When Animals Dream uses lycanthropy as its central horror device. Or, at least, that’s as close a recognisable monster trait as can be established. It’s never explicitly clear what exactly 16-year-old Marie (Sonia Suhl, solid in her debut film role) is turning into. A werewolf is suggested by the manifestation of thick body hair in unusual places (hey, puberty!) and instances of angry, violent lashing out (hey, more puberty!), but no traditional werewolf mythology is to be found in the film. A full moon (or night time, even) doesn’t seem to be the catalyst for transformation, nor are howling or silver bullets anywhere to be found. (There’s also no sign of naked American men stealing children’s balloons.)
Marie doesn’t become a full-on four-legged beast that retains no anthropomorphic qualities. She just gets hairier. Meaner. Bitier. It’s something she seems to have inherited from her mother (Sonja Richter, who memorably played one of the ‘troubled’ women in Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman last year). Currently catatonic in a wheelchair thanks to heavy sedation, terrors from her mother’s past come to light for Marie as she explores the condition that her father (Lars Mikkelsen) and a local doctor (Stig Hoffmeyer) seem strangely aware of, as though they have expected and prepared for any sign of it for quite some time. It seems Mother, in her own beastly mode, terrorised the small Danish island where they reside, where Marie takes a job at a fish-gutting factory.
In an early scene that recalls the pig’s blood of Carrie, Marie finds herself the victim of an unusual hazing ritual from her intimidating, predominantly male co-workers: a dunk into a vat of fish heads. Said fish heads also make a later appearance in a scene of sexual assault. Said perpetrators against Marie, it’s safe to say, do not avoid the fate of the fish by film’s end. It’s probably not a casting coincidence that the pale, skinny Suhl actually looks a fair bit like Sissy “Carrie” Spacek in a couple of scenes.
This recurring theme of women fighting against their suppression and abuse at the hands of men who fear them, despise them, or sometimes both, is by far the most interesting aspect of When Animals Dream. When it comes to actual frights, the film is sadly a little lacking. The final act escalation that’s so clearly signposted throughout doesn’t have much formal innovation to linger in the memory or even really thrill in the moment (very reminiscent, again, of Ginger Snaps at the end), while even ‘easier’ techniques like a couple of jump scares fail to jolt. The spookiest sequence is actually the opening credits, which show off the coastal village setting that’s nearly shrouded in fog or, at least, grey skies. Curiously, one of the brightest scenes comes right before the cut to closing credits, after the fog (read: townsfolk) has failed to cover and keep at bay the beast within.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently the managing film editor at Sound On Sight, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.