Puberty and adolescence are strong recurring themes in horror cinema, with the sexually active teens bound for the killer’s knife in slasher films or the burgeoning psychic powers in films such as Carrie, to name just a couple. One horror movie trope though that works perfectly well with the coming of age story that isn’t used quite as much, is that of the werewolf. Those afflicted gain uncontrollable urges, have hair growing in weird places and begin to feel like nobody understands what they are going through. When Animals Dream pairs a young girl’s flourishing sexuality with her transformation into a werewolf against the grim and freezing climes of Scandinavia, and unfortunately, the results are rather mixed.
Marie (Sonia Suhl) is a young girl on the verge of womanhood. She lives with her father Thor (Lars Mikkelsen, older brother of Mads) and her disabled mother Mor (Sonja Richter). To help support the family, she goes to work on a production line filleting fish. Suddenly, her body begins to change; weird hairs grow on her breasts, she has strange bloodthirsty dreams and urges rise within her that she is finding more difficult to suppress. At the same time, Marie becomes more aware of her mother’s history and learns her disability may be linked to the daily injections administered by her father and that these changes she is experiencing are a genetic inheritance.
The most notable film to explore lycanthropy as a metaphor for a young woman’s puberty blues was the Canadian horror Ginger Snaps, and this film treads familiar ground. Being set in a small Scandinavian town, there is a focus on community; everybody knows each other and it is hard to keep a secret, so when Marie starts to exhibit the signs, the entire town learns at the same time of what she is going through. There is that element of growing into maturity where the adolescent is introduced to that hitherto unknown world of adulthood. Once she begins to undertake her transformation, she learns that her mother went through the same changes and that the town have suppressed her urges and want to do the same to her.
There is a concern here about the need for individuality. There is sympathy with Marie as she fights back against the community who are trying to suppress her natural instincts. When she meets and becomes attracted to Daniel (Jakob Oftebro), she finds someone who loves her for who she is and she begins a journey of self-acceptance. After suffering an amount of ostracizing by her co-workers and what her father and has been doing to her mother, Marie begins to realize the even though she may be becoming something else, she needs to embrace it rather than accept what society has planned for her. She represents the idea of the “monstrous feminine” who society feels a need to suppress, so she rightfully fights back against it.
While these are great themes that are explored interestingly, the film is a little too cold and understated to take full advantage of them. At only 84 minutes long, When Animals Dream takes its time building toward the inevitable climax when Marie makes her complete transformation. This results in some aspects of the plot falling by the wayside. The origins of Marie’s mother’s affliction is barely touched upon and while a little mystery in this regard is a good thing, there is not enough to make it tangible enough to grasp onto. Also, when Marie does finally “wolf out,” it feels a little like she hasn’t quite earned it. At least there is some consolation that those she does kill are only ones who kind of deserve it, having been awful to her throughout the entire film up to that point.
There are not enough werewolf films around, so just the fact that When Animals Dream exists is something to celebrate. While there are a lot of interesting ideas explored in this film, it doesn’t quite capitalize on them enough. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to love about this film, including the performance of Sonia Suhl, who is both very beautiful and has the introspection to being Marie to life, plus Lars Mikkelsen, who brings a tortured quality to the father who struggles between wanting what is best for his daughter and what the community demands of him. It is just a shame that the film’s desire to feel cold and understated is a little to its detriment. While it may bring the themes to the forefront a little more than a more bombastic film would do, it is just not quite enough.