Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on August 28, 2015, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
With its stark Scandinavian settings and central lycanthropy/coming-of-age metaphor, When Animals Dream has inevitable echoes of some of the best horror/dramas of the past couple of decades, yet establishes a distinctive identity and develops a chilling veneer of its own.
Categorically a werewolf movie, When Animals Dream largely eschews monster makeup FX and is more concerned with inner transformation. Teenage Marie (Sonia Suhl, making a remarkably assured film-acting debut) is pale and gaunt enough to suggest a vampire, though in her first scene, she’s being examined by a doctor who comments on the strange rashes on her skin. She also has odd, unnatural hair growth, a telltale sign for any genre fan that she’s got certain animal qualities starting to bubble to the surface. Director Jonas Alexander Arnby and screenwriter Rasmus Birch don’t oversell the mystery of her condition; what’s interesting is the way they tease the possibility, as the film goes on, that there’s a hereditary quality to it.
But that’s getting a little ahead of the story, which follows Marie to a new job at the local fish processing plant, which seems to be the only major employer in the stark Danish seaside village where she lives. There’s the sense of a town that time forgot in this setting, and that’s certainly true of many of the males’ attitude toward women, Marie in particular. On her first day at the plant, the guys subject her to a gross prank that then seems excusable as a traditional workplace initiation, but the antagonism continues to get worse, and some of it seems rooted in distrust and suspicion of her family in general. Certainly, things aren’t entirely right at home; Marie’s father (Lars Mikkelsen—yes, Mads’ brother) keeps her mother (Sonja Richter) heavily medicated in a wheelchair and seems unduly protective of Marie as well. Meanwhile, the animal inside the girl continues to show itself through overly precocious behavior that bids to become violent in response to her harassment.
While it’s not visually explicit in developing its twinned themes of burgeoning sexuality and monstrousness, neither is When Animals Dream sentimental or overly sensitive to Marie’s teenagerhood. As she transitions from passive to aggressive, Suhl bestows a sense of otherworldliness to Marie while maintaining our sympathy for her. She doesn’t need a lot of prosthetic enhancement for us to see her dawning bestial side; she can suggest as much with a look in her eyes or contorting her body. Much of When Animals Dream is a mood piece, a gradual buildup hinging on Birch’s astute scripting, Arnby’s command of performance and pace and, just as crucially, Niels Thastum’s starkly beautiful cinematography. Within the generally bleak environment, his camera captures some remarkably evocative specific structures, from a church perched alone by the seaside, separate from the rest of the community (some of whom certainly don’t seem to have embraced God’s teachings), to the fish-plant building with architecture suggesting a fin at its top.
Artful enough to have played Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival, When Animals Dream is visceral enough, late in the game, to reward the patience of die-hard fright fans. Catharsis is achieved for both Marie and the audience that’s satisfyingly savage, even as the gore kept at the right level to mesh with the more restrained tone the film has carefully built up in the preceding acts. Nor do Arnby and Birch, for all their sensitivity to girlhood concerns, turn When Animals Dream into a feminist tract; they’re simply telling the story of one young woman dealing with strange, confusing, ultimately empowering changes within her and threatening pressures around her, and they do it well.