The werewolf genre is a tricky beast to tame, but when handled properly, some serious creature-feature chills can be achieved. Take Jonas Alexander Arnby’s When Animals Dream, for example. His delivery is a focused glance at one girl’s transformation into a recognizably hairy monster, but it burns slowly, building tension as the female specimen becomes comfortable in her new skin. It’s not the rip-roaring adventure something like Universal’s The Woflman reboot aims to be, or David Hayter’s goofy full-suited snoozer, Wolves. If either of those are more you speed, this gruesome coming-of-age story might not be your favorite breed, but those looking for something a bit weightier than fighting costumed stuntmen will find tenderness and intrigue in Arnby’s unexpectedly familial thriller.
Newcomer Sonia Suhl stars as Marie, a small-town girl who lives with her sick mother and caretaker father. As she starts to embark more on her own, accepting a job at the town’s local fishery, Marie experiences strange bodily symptoms that lead to some doubt about her mother’s condition. After snooping around, it’s discovered that her mother is actually being sedated, and that her bloodline has a dark, vicious secret. But Marie doesn’t want to be drugged, and refuses treatment that her father insists upon. Marie embraces the changes that are happening to her body, and goes about her life like any other girl – until her aggression can’t be contained. Everyone wants to see the young girl locked up, but Marie isn’t going down without a fight. A bloody, brutal fight.
There’s artistry and simplicity utilized in When Animals Dream, slowing the pace down like such similar atmospheric haunters as Under The Skin and Honeymoon. Arnby is constantly building towards the film’s finale, steadily increasing the heat until Marie boils over with uncontrollable rage. Much of the film tells about an outcast child simply trying to fit in, but then the werewolf motif takes over in her inevitable coming out party. She refuses to be sedated by the rules of her lifestyle, hidden away like her mother, so she chooses to live a life of difference, which terrifies her neighbors into taking drastic measures. There’s just as much human drama in Marie’s struggle once her inner animal is unleashed as there is horrific flair, which is the glaring difference between Arnby’s work and so many other narrow-sighted imitators – the sense of human emotion.
When Animals Dream is a three-quarters trot followed by a sprint to the finish, ending with a bloody exclamation point. The true test for horror fans will be seeing how long they’ll be able to deal with Marie’s more dramatic introduction as she navigates the tricky waters of her coming adulthood. So much time is spent watching her be the victim of workplace harassment and caged thinking, saving her fangs for a truly harrowing finish. But adrenaline junkies may have a hard time sitting through the dirty judgement of unsure townsfolk, and the resulting hunt may come too late before action fans check out. Like I said, this is no The Wolfman – tone and established storytelling are the mission here.
Give credit where credit is due, because Rasmus Birch’s screenplay readdresses the theme of maturity in a furry, disgusting, morally reprehensible new light, but it’s one that horror fans will eat up. The gore is absolutely bonkers, to a squeamish level whenever Marie spits out chunks of bloody pulp after tearing into her latest victim. Arnby’s vision singes with a hunting overture of childhood questions being addressed through relentless brutality, not to mention touching on bullying and acceptance, but it also lingers for some time with long periods of lengthy build-up. Birch’s story is stellar, and Arnby impresses, but the leading moments of background establishment do tend to drag at points – if you can invest, you’ll be fine. But again, a warning to those expecting a flurry of bloody werewolf attacks. That’s not When Animals Dream, for better and worse.
There’s absolutely noting wrong with When Animals Dream. It’s wonderfully acted, lustfully crafted, and sinister when necessary – it’s just not the enigmatic wonder some are claiming it to be. Credit Denmark with creating a unique take on a werewolf story most studios would turn into yet another genre splatterfest, but Jonas Alexander Arnby ensures Rasmus Birch’s story is built with the right mindset. This will work for some viewers who wish for something a little more vile, but others will find dull tones instead of grisly attacks. Know the kind of movie you want, and if When Animals Dream sounds like your bag, you’ll be in for a treat – a vicious, harrowing treat.
When Animals Dream lingers a bit longer than it should, but an intense finish ensures that horror fans will enjoy this coming-of-age tale - if they've stuck around to see the end.