In this monthly column, I’ll spotlight a horror movie from a country outside the United States that has flown under the radar. The goal is to showcase the talents of horror filmmakers around the world and make sure their voices don’t go unheard.
MOVIE: WHEN ANIMALS DREAMS (2014)
WATCH IF YOU LIKE: COMING-OF-AGE HORROR, WEREWOLVES, GINGER SNAPS (2000), CURSED (2004), FEMININE RAGE
Werewolves are a classic horror monster. They howl at the moon, are covered in thick dark hair, and have terrifyingly large teeth that can slice through human flesh like butter. Often, they are masculine creatures, as if women cannot become giant muscular monsters. No, female monsters are small, nimble, and vicious. Some films, such as Ginger Snaps (2000) and Cursed (2004), have dared to create female werewolves in coming-of-age tales. In his feature film debut When Animals Dream (2014), Danish director Jonas Arnby joins the sparse ranks of the female werewolf film with a teenage girl trying to escape her life in a tiny fishing village.
Marie (Sonia Suhl) lives in a small Danish village on the coast where you’re destined to be a fisherman or work in a fish processing plant. It is a bleak, desolate place that is well-worn by the unrelenting ocean. Marie lives with her father Thor (Lars Mikkelsen, House of Cards) and her invalid mother (Sonja Richter, The Homesman) who is confined to a wheelchair. Marie begins noticing her body changing, but not just in the expected ways. She has a strange hairy rash and her nails are starting to fall off. Her temper is short and her rage is almost unmanageable. Slowly, she realizes that she is not quite human and that she is not the only one inflicted with the condition; her mother is as well. It seems that lycanthropy is a genetic trait in When Animals Dream. Marie must figure out how to live as a werewolf while also avoiding the wrath of enraged townsfolk.
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Arnby hits on a few common werewolf beats with this film, but on the whole, creates a unique vision of the classic creature that now embodies inherited feminine rage. Marie’s mother is also a werewolf, but she is drugged into oblivion to avoid transformation. She is wheelchair-bound and controlled by the town doctor and her husband, kept in a dream-like state where she can’t inflict any harm. Despite their efforts to keep her sedated, she breaks through the drug-induced haze once to protect her daughter from the same fate. She kills the doctor that has controlled her for so long, unleashing her pent-up rage. But, as soon as she attacks, she returns back to her usual state.
A similar fate awaits Marie if she stays in town because the town’s population knows her family secret. They have a deal with her father that the women will be controlled and kept obedient and non-violent. When Animals Dream has a very literal interpretation of the monstrous feminine and how female bodies that are declared unruly must be controlled. The small fishing village operates in rather obvious misogyny where Marie and her mother are not permitted any bodily autonomy; they must be poked, prodded, and examined by anyone who asks to make sure they are not murderers.
Feminine rage in the film also manifests through sexual assault and harassment. Just as her mother before her, Marie is harassed and assaulted by her coworkers who mask their malicious intentions as merely playful hazing. But, they rip off her clothes, caress her body, and taunt her with pet names. They assume she is a meek young woman who cannot defend herself. Yet, when she fears for her life, she transforms into a powerful creature who can overpower them all. Her rage has a physical manifestation. Like her mother who murdered her rapists, Marie murders her assaulters.
While Marie experiences sexual trauma, she is also able to experience sexual pleasure which initiates her first on-screen transformation. While having sex with her coworker Daniel (Jakob Oftebro, The Snowman), blonde hair begins to sprout along her spine. Her vision focuses on Daniel’s jugular and her hands twist around his neck and hair. Then the camera quickly cuts to her eyes which have turned yellow.
The werewolf design in When Animals Dream is subtle and not a complete transformation as seen in films such as An American Werewolf In London (1981). Instead, Marie retains some of her humanity while blonde hair sprouts from her spine, hands, and forehead. There is no howling at the moon or extended scenes of her snarling. Instead, becoming a werewolf is a physical embodiment of cathartic release, where Marie is still relatively herself while she taps into her rage. In an interview with The Moveable Fest, Arnby addressed his design approach, stating he actually isn’t a fan of werewolves and wanted to create a unique take on the iconic creature. He said, “I like some werewolf movies, but why it was intriguing to me was I hadn’t seen a werewolf movie that I had believed in and I didn’t know how to make one. My co-writer [Rasmus Birch] and I made our own werewolf without looking at any references to the genre.”
While When Animals Dream works with the trope that women are monsters, it tries to refute such a claim by having a physical manifestation of feminine rage act as a way of reclaiming bodily autonomy. Marie’s body seems to change without much warning, but she slowly learns its triggers and how to control herself even when she is a werewolf. Through her monstrous form, she is able to unleash her repressed rage and anger. Arnby’s film is a thoughtful, introspective, yet still violent addition to the werewolf genre that combines the female coming-of-age film with a classic monster. When Animals Dream is a crucial watch for those fascinated with the portrayal of the female body in horror and how directors interpret our bodies as vessels of change.
Have you seen When Animals Dream? How does it measure up to other werewolf movies? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!