When Animals Dream. 2014. Directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby. Screenplay by Rasmus Birch, from an original idea by Birch, Arnby & Christoffer Boe.
Starring Sonia Suhl, Lars Mikkelsen, Sonja Richter, Jakob Oftebro, Stig Hoffmeyer, and Mads Rilsom.
AlphaVille Pictures Copenhagen
Rated R. 84 minutes.
There are a ton of great Danish films out there. For those who aren’t a big fan of subtitle movies, you’re really missing out. So many countries out there making wonderful films and if you aren’t willing to read subtitles then you’re cutting out a big portion of cinema worth watching. When it comes to Denmark, I love movies by all sorts of filmmakers from Anders Thomas Jensen to Nicolas Winding Refn, and yes Lars is in there as well – to films like Nattevagten (English title: Nightwatch), Babette’s Feast, to the more recent Mads Mikkelsen stunner The Hunt. And those are but a few.
When Animals Dream is the feature film debut of Jonas Alexander Arnby. It’s a very real, raw take on a timeworn story. About werewolves. About secrets, and family, and betrayal. About love. About becoming, getting older, growing up. First and foremost, the story is rooted in a family drama. It’s also part coming-of-age tale. But again, the biggest and likely best part? The horror. The horror…
In a small fishing town, Marie (Sonia Suhl) lives with her father Thor (Lars Mikkelsen) and her perpetually ill, deteriorating mother. Marie works at the local fish plant, where men confront, haze, and borderline sexually abuse her. Although, one man is genuinely nice to her. When people start to die, the illness of her mother comes to bear on the family history. In fact, the changes in Marie’s body as of late may not all be puberty. They may have something to do with the sickness her mother carries.
As patches of fur grow on her body, and more people die, Marie will figure out what exactly she is becoming.
The screenplay is incredible. One of the things, as a massive fan of horror, I particularly dislike are the same tire retread of sub-genres. Yes, you can do a certain type of horror on and on; if there are fresh ideas, fresh looks and takes on the subject matter. What When Animals Dream does is go a different route than most. Not saying it’s entirely innovative in every step. Not so. Rather, the writing goes more for a route towards grounded family drama. Even among all the werewolf and possibly supernatural-ish business, the way the town reacts to Marie and her mother, all that, there has to be something which keeps us rooted. That’s where the relationship between Marie, her mother and father comes into play. Add to that Marie is young, going through puberty, becoming a woman. While she also becomes something else, too. There’s so much tenderness in the familial aspect of the drama in this story, it makes the horror of the film come out almost twofold.
Along with good writing, the movie has a nice feel and overall look. The entire thing has a very muted colour palette. Everything is dull, gray, but not in a boring sense. It makes the mood foreboding, especially in the night shots whether interior or exterior; everything then is cast in appropriate shadow and blackness. The score adds a nice touch to many scenes – one which stands out is right after Marie’s mother dies and they’re outside the church, a heavy electronic piece plays and it almost rattles your bones. There are a few pieces I found worked impressively well in that way. Adding those extra bits to lend a proper hand to the film’s atmosphere. Even some natural music, the songs played during and after the funeral, they give even better feeling to the mood and tone. A less horror movie might go for more money spent on effects, or something else similar. Instead, we get this well-crafted aesthetic.
The acting helps to elevate When Animals Dream from falling on either side of the edge it hopes to walk, between arthouse and genre film. Whereas an arthouse picture would go much more abstract, further into the avant-garde, a full-on werewolf horror film might stray into cheesiness, reliance on gore or all special effects laden when lacking in writing. Regardless of any other film in the sub-genre, this werewolf movie has a lot of guts coming from Sonia Suhl and Lars Mikkelsen, as daughter Marie and father Thor. They’re the heart and soul of things. Suhl depicts a young girl growing into a woman while simultaneously dealing with the hideousness of men, the small minds of a town already against her at birth, and a strange disease on top of puberty, an already strange condition. There’s a tortured teenager sense about Marie as a character, yet Suhl doesn’t play her as a typical teenager of that ilk; she’s not whiny, she bears the brunt of it all with silence, a pride which no one can take away from her. A great role played by a fascinating actress, someone I hope we’ll see more of in the future. Mikkelsen does an equally swell job as her father. This is an interesting character, as a man who basically is watching his wife fade away right as his daughter is discovering she has the same disease. A soulcrushing sort of setup, however, impossibly interesting. Knows no bounds, this character and his suffering, alongside that of his family overall. Then there’s the fact he knows, he sorts of holds the dark secret of his wife and their family, like a gatekeeper to the ugly knowledge of their history. The weight of all this shows on Mikkelsen, in just about every last scene where he shows his face. The power of these two acting talents makes the movie and its story come off strong, confident and most importantly, intensely emotional.
When Animals Dream is a real 4-star film for me. From the moment it began I found there was a tone I could get into, which drew me in consistently. It’s not what some might expect, though, eventually it gets to that point; trust me. But don’t head in expecting this is an all-out werewolf gorefest. It is not. What this is happens to be a finely tuned tale about adolescence, becoming a woman, the story of what it’s like to live in a very small, closed minded town, as well as a story about becoming a werewolf. The burn in this one is slow, my friends. The like of which I’m a huge fan. Let this sink its teeth in. Because believe me, the teeth come out. Just wait for it. Enjoy all the well-written drama, the intense yet subtle acting, and eventually the horror pops out from time to time. Nothing wrong with horror that isn’t heavy handed. By the finale, you’ll certainly have a bit of fun.