The Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week sidebars never shy away from adding a little genre flimmaking to their slates, and the latter, with only seven titles in their competition, really went for horror, with not only Robert David Mitchell’s sophomore effort It Follows (which we reviewed earlier this week), but also with Danish debut When Animals Dream. To be fair, this werewolf drama set in a remote fishing village in the photogenic Jutland area is more of a coming-of-age tale than a hardcore horror flick, with the gore and the scares only coming on strong in the final act. Director Jonas Alexander Arnby loses his grip on the story here and there, but as a debut this is more than satisfying.
Teenager Marie (non-professional Sonia Suhl in her first role, a demanding and brave performance) experiences physical changes. Nothing unexpected for a 16-year-old, one would say, but most kids that age don’t find out they are turning into a werewolf. This change coincides with her starting work at a fish processing plant, attracting the attention of some of her co-workers. Her doctor figures out her ailment, but doesn’t seem at all surprised, and prescribes some medication. Turns out her seemingly paraplegic mother is actually also a werewolf. Like mother, like daughter, apparently. Although never really explained, it is suggested her mother’s impairment is the result of the medication. A typical teenager, Marie stubbornly refuses to take the drugs, to the displeasure of the villagers who are in the know. With the help of newfound boyfriend Daniel (Jakob Oftebro), who doesn’t seem to care about his girlfriend’s hairy back (only at night, so maybe that’s why), Marie tries to stay out of the claws of the mob, until it is time to put her own claws into the mob.
Much of the strength of this film lies in the way director Arnby manages to create a mood out of the bleak, desolate Jutland backdrop. Although most werewolf tales have a more gothic setting, the many shades of grey mesh nicely with the blossoming lead character. Newcomer Suhl, with her light, marble-like complexion, is the perfect virginal embodiment of innocence who discovers herself.
The film is quite clearly in the same wheelhouse as Scandinavian vampire hit Let The Right One In from a few years ago. Just like that film, it is more about tone than blood, more mood than mayhem. Audiences who appreciated that film will find much to like in When Animals Dream as well. It’s a film that certainly has the same breakout potential, already reflected in the bidding war surrounding it on the Berlin market. The film is certainly not without flaws, and in the end quite conventional, but seems perfectly geared for the arthouse fan who wants a little gore now and then.