Werewolves are a well-established creature in the realm of horror with their own defined set of rules, though nowhere near as oversaturated and over explained as vampires and zombies. When Animals Dream, the new Danish film from director Jonas Alexander Arnby, doesn’t tie itself to the traditional portrayal of werewolves in service of a much more subdued and domestic look at the affliction of those cursed by the werewolf. This is a film that is much more interested in a sense of atmospheric dread than in gory shocks.
Marie (Sonia Suhl) is a 16-year-old girl living in a coastal village with her father Thor (Lars Mikkelsen) and her mother Mor (Sonja Richter), who is afflicted with a mysterious illness that has left her wheelchair bound. When we first encounter Marie, she’s being examined by Dr. Larsen (Stig Hoffmeyer) for a rash that has appeared on her chest. Later, Marie is staring a new job at a local fish processing facility. She strikes up a friendship with a couple of her co-workers, Daniel (Jakob Oftebro) and Felix (Mads Riisom), but is also the victim of cruel pranks from other co-workers, including the vicious Ebsen (Gustav Dyekjær Giese). Before long, Marie starts going through a slow transformation, hair growing all over her and her quiet, subdued demeanor grows more and more aggressive. But the changes that Marie is going through will uncover a hidden family secret that stokes the fears of the others in the seaside village.
There’s not a single shot of a full moon in When Animals Dream, nor is there the typical pained transformation into a werewolf. One could view the gradual transformation of Marie as a metaphor for her emerging independence, including her sexuality, though I don’t think that the film backs it up enough to entirely support that interpretation. But even with some thematic elements that seem undercooked, it’s the slow-building atmospheric terror of When Animals Dream that never allows the film to drag.
When Animals Dream eschews the traditions of its chosen genre in favor of a much more personal tale of transformation. The film is anchored by some solid direction from Jonas Alexander Arnby, who crafts moments of isolation through sheer visual panache alone. The real reason that When Animals Dream is able to work is the lead performance by Sonia Suhl. She’s able encapsulate this youthful uneasiness which only gets worse as her mysterious symptoms get worse and worse. When Animals Dream isn’t a film that is made for hardcore gorehounds, instead this is a film is a character study set against the backdrop of a familiar horror setting. It’s not a great horror film, but it’s never boring.