Coming of age is a literally hairy dilemma for the heroine of “When Animals Dream,” a movie in which the term “werewolf” is never spoken but is conceptually key. As sober as the1976 Eurosploitation classic “Werewolf Woman” was hysterical, this “Let the Right One In”-esque exercise in austere horror echoes that film’s slow pace, but falls short of its atmospherics and narrative/action payoff. The offbeat take on genre elements will inevitably tempt offshore buyers — it’s already sold in several territories — but this feature debut for Danish helmer Jonas Alexander Arnby and scenarist Rasmus Birch is a somewhat pretentious exercise that feels longer than its 85-minute running time. Radius plans a Stateside release later this year.
Marie (Sonia Suhl) is understandably a bit sullen: In her characterless coastal small town, she’s co-caretaker for her own mother (Sonja Richter), whose mysterious illness has left her wheelchair-bound and near-catatonic. Having apparently finished school, Marie has no employment options beyond working at the local fish-processing factory, where her tasks are unpleasant and her hazing induction by fellow employees even more so. She clicks with cute co-workers Felix (Mads Riisom) and Daniel (Jakob Oftebro), but makes an instant foe of bullying creep Esben (Gustav Giese).
Introduced undergoing an examination by local doc Larsen (Stig Hoffmeyer), Marie has her own, more private issues. Her body is erupting in rashes, some of which sprout hair in places that make little sense for a young woman. When she reveals her fears about these developments to dad Thor (Lars Mikkelsen), he and Larsen attempt to medicate her a la Mom, telling her she’s apparently inherited a disease that will soon make her “short-tempered and aggressive.” But Marie doesn’t want to be tranquilized. When things take a violent turn, it quickly emerges that the entire village already thinks of her and her mother as dangerous, alien threats. Blithely telling the besotted Daniel that she is “turning into a monster,” she begins flaunting her changeling nature, daring the locals to oppose her — which they do, leading to a bloody shipboard climax.
“When Animals Dream” is impressively handled on all tech/design levels, with Niels Thastum’s widescreen lensing and Mikkel Hess’ ominous score particularly strong. But it’s minimalist to the point of mannerism in terms of pacing and writing. Maria has lived in this village all her life, so why does she apparently have no pre-existing friends? Newcomer Suhl doesn’t offer a complex enough portrait to fill in the script’s blanks; her protagonist simply leaps from naive to predatory. (By contrast, the less arty Canadian “Ginger Snaps” horror franchise actually offered more psychological insight into its young heroines’ uncontrollably bloodthirsty new emotions.) Why does junior Brad Pitt lookalike Daniel stick with her even when it’s clear she’s a mutating peril? A movie with some (or any) sense of humor might have suggested he simply likes hirstute women.
In a generally strong cast, Mikkelsen (Mads’ older brother) is the standout as a father who’s made enormous sacrifices to protect the women in his life, and is willing to make some more. He grounds the film in an emotional reality it otherwise strains to attain, despite the ponderously serious tenor. “When Animals Dream” lacks peasants bearing flaming torches to hunt down Frankenstein’s monster outside the terrorized village. But it also lacks the depth to avoid seeming just as corny, albeit in a dressed-up, self-consciously important way.