Comparing When Animals Dream to Let The Right One In is both lazy and pertinent—lazy because both films bear the surface similarities of being slow, Scandinavian, and atmospheric, and pertinent because both use their young female protagonists as living metaphors for primal fears. But where Let The Right One In’s terrors were those of childhood, When Animals Dream deals with adolescent female sexuality, and the fear of such. This, also, is not unique. But by de-emphasizing the “moon cycle” bit and adding a family narrative, When Animals Dream congeals its influences into something intimate, intelligent, and occasionally quite haunting.
A practically expressionless Sonia Suhl makes her screen debut as Marie, a withdrawn teenage girl we see going to a doctor’s appointment in the opening scene. Even if you didn’t know the premise going in, it would be easy to figure out what’s wrong with Marie very early on in the film. (The patches of hair sprouting on her chest ensure that.) More mysterious is what’s wrong with her mother (Sonja Richter), who is kept heavily sedated and propped up in a wheelchair in the living room of their modest cottage in a tiny Danish fishing village. As Marie investigates how her mother “got sick”—discovering why her father (Lars Mikkelsen) is so protective and why their fellow villagers eye the family suspiciously in the process—she comes to understand that her condition is hereditary.
The genetic element is what distinguishes When Animals Dream from its inspirations. The coming-of-age beats, while tastefully done, are standard; subtext becomes text when Marie tells her co-worker Daniel (Jakob Oftebro), “I’m transforming into a monster, but I need to have a lot of sex first. Do you think you can help me?” Like Carrie White (another reference point for the film), Marie is a freak, and is persecuted by her neighbors—particularly the young men of the town, who like to torment her with “pranks” laden with sexual menace—for it. But unlike Carrie, Marie is not alone. As she realizes that she comes from a line of terrifyingly untamable women, Marie refuses to take the medication that will suppress her condition. She refuses to accept her mother’s (and her mother’s mother’s, and her mother’s mother’s mother’s) fate, and her self-awareness makes her even more dangerous.
Anyone expecting either a conventional werewolf thriller or a startlingly original take on the same will be disappointed by When Animals Dream. Its slow pace either complements director Jonas Alexander Arnby’s social-realism approach or slows the action to a crawl, depending on your tolerance for such things. The gore is there, as are the transformation sequences, but they’re played in such a muted fashion that their more visceral pleasures are somewhat mitigated. But viewers who check their expectations will find a solid entry into the burgeoning feminist werewolf sub-genre that’s well worth a look.