Movie Review: ‘When Animals Dream’

When Animals Dreams, a new immaculately photographed art-horror piece from Danish director Jonas Alexander Arnby, is not the first movie to explore the parallels between adolescent female sexuality and lycanthropic transformation. “Ginger Snaps” mined that metaphorical ground a decade and a half ago. (And in many ways that film traded on the same menophobia “Carrie” had explored years earlier.) But while “Ginger Snaps” always felt to me like a joke that was never taken far enough, When Animals Dream forgoes the laughs in favor of a dreamy beauty that pervades even the film’s attempted scares.

Marie (Sonia Suhl) may be turning into a monster, but she is not the villain here. Rather the true evil is a male-dominated society that fears and desires the sexual power of women, and thus seeks to harness and control it every turn — through rape, pharmaceuticals, and plain intimidation.

At first, When Animals Dream plays a bit like a horror-tinged twist on the Dardenne Brothers, tracking a resolute yet vulnerable working-class teenage protagonist as she begins a new job in a fish cannery. She lives with her father and her mother, who is mute and confined to a wheelchair, in a small Danish fishing town. The men seem to regard her with a mix of fear and derision. At work, they play cruel pranks on her; at home, her father and her doctor conspire to control her budding lycanthropy. But Marie is too strong-willed to quietly accede to their control. Instead, she embraces her sexuality and even begins to welcome her transformation as a subversive badge of honor.

Arnby gains a lot of atmospheric mileage from his picturesque locale, filmed in a painterly yellowish hue, and the striking face of Suhl. The film’s deliberate pacing allows us to savor both of these, but it can also make for a slow, somber watch. Arnby does deliver the requisite transformation sequence and a violent finale, but these are both deliberately underplayed in favor of atmospherics and allegorical significance, which can make for a slightly unsatisfying experience, especially if you’re the kind of viewer that expects a horror movie to deliver a few scares, or at least a bit of gore.

I sometimes wonder whether we’ve reached a point where the only horror films that are taken seriously are the ones with obvious allegorical intent. It seems that the quickest road to international distribution and critical acclaim is to load up your horror with clear metaphors to give reviewers something to write about. But the most terrifying horror films — like “The Shining,” “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” and the films of Dario Argento, to name just a few — are the ones that proceed with a nightmare logic that precludes simple explanations.

When Animals Dream slots easily into the recent canon of metaphorical horror, which includes, among many others, “The Babadook,” “It Follows,” and “Let the Right One In.” I like and admire many of these films, but once you figure out the central metaphor, their power tends to dissipate. I just hope horror filmmakers will begin to rediscover the terror of the unknown and the unexplainable.

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