One of the most interesting aspects of being a horror fan is getting to see the continual resurrection of classic monsters. It feels like an offense to call Jonas Alexander Arnby’s When Animals Dream a monster film, but it’s essentially an abstract version of a classic story; fresh and clean, with a great sense of subtle iconography.
Small town ignorance, conservative values, puberty, death, and sins of the mother prove a potent but studied group of interests for the odd stoicism of Arnby’s vision. Sonja Suhl is terrific, channelling the innocence and charm of a beautiful outsider, only to prove she has no qualms getting Carrie-nasty for “quiet girl” vengeance. Importantly, Arnby makes the film more about the promise of violence from the community than the inevitable transformation in Marie. From the start Marie seems to be undergoing some kind of social gauntlet, dealing with the stigma of her mother’s mysterious illness whilst surviving the copious male aggression in her small sea-side town. As with many puberty-related horror films, the dangers of her condition are consistently outmatched and amplified by the world around her. It’s an interesting parallel to Paul Wright’s For Those in Peril, an equally pessimistic film about sea-side communities and destructive superstition.
Visually the film is consistently haunting and serene. The harsh light of day spells danger for Marie and her family, where safety only arrives with total darkness. Fantastic shots of artificial light in the early hours always spell doom for someone, extending Arby’s cynicism towards attempts to control nature.
Though the film often rests on Suhl’s quiet performance, Lars Mikkelsen is an equally huge and important component of the piece, playing a torn and fraught figure locked between the demise of his wife and the slow submission of his daughter to the same terrible curse. Arnby is wise to tell us as little as possible start to finish, letting us enjoy the quiet but charged politics of an introverted community, whilst putting us in the same bamboozled position as Marie.
A slow but mysterious venture: When Animals Dream is a haunted film; tired at the fact it’s still dealing with an aggressive patriarchy but triumphant in its remoulding of genre mythos.