They tell me that the new season of some popular purported “quality drama” is now available on Netflix and that everyone is staying in this weekend to “binge watch” it, but if you’re no more a fan of sleazy soap operas with delusions of grandeur than I am (and really, what is House Of Cards other than Dynasty, with a better cast, transposed from a mansion in Denver to the White House?), you may be looking for something else on there to watch — if so, allow me to humbly recommend the recently-added 2014 Danish supernatural horror/thriller When Animals Dream, an artfully-crafted, beautifully-shot, often harrowing look at a teenage girl going through some serious changes.
I’ve seen some folks comparing this austere film to another Scandinavian genre entry from a few years back, Let The Right One In, and while on paper that makes sense, please don’t think that they’re anything like two sides of the same coin, since this debut effort from director Jonas Alexander Arnby really only shares the stark, minimalist aesthetic of its justly-celebrated counterpart and from there on takes things in an entirely different direction — which is to its credit, to be sure, even if it does lead to some stumbling towards the end.
Before we get to all that, though, the plot particulars : 16-year-old Marie (played with terrific depth and emotion by Sonia Suhl) lives on an isolated and remote island entirely dependent on fishing for its livelihood with her parents, Thor (Lars Mikkelsen) and Mor (Sonja Richter). Thor puts on a brave face and attempts to go about the daily business of providing for his family, but that’s easier said than done when your wife is confined to the house with a mystery illness that requires her to be sedated much of the time.To make matters worse, whatever “disease” is afflicting the Mrs. would appear to be contagious given that Marie develops a mysterious and persistent rash for a time before suffering from other ailments such as bleeding fingernails, hair growth in unusual places, and strange lapses in her memory.
Suddenly, our young protagonist’s life is full of questions : why was her father shaving her mother’s back in the bathtub the other night? Why do her co-workers at the fish factory speak in hushed tones about a certain “incident” involving her mom years ago? And why are dead, mutilated bodies turning up on the island?
The teenage years are confusing enough for any of us what with the raging hormones and the looming specter of adulthood and its attendant responsibilities, but family secrets, strange physical transformations, and small-town gossip only serve to make things all the more unbearable — fortunately, Marie’s at least caught the fancy of the right guy, local good-looking “swell fella” Daniel (Jakob Ostebro), who doesn’t even seem to mind that his first love is becoming a bit more — uhhhmmm — hirsute as the weeks go by. Still, as the bodies begin to pile up and the changes Marie is experiencing become more pronounced, her dad thinks the best course of action might be to send her to the village doctor and get her started on the same “serum” that’s reduced her mother to a catatonic, wheelchair-bound state. Marie, however, has other ideas —
The werewolf legend has always been an analogue for the onset of menstruation, of course, and never has that been more plain than in this film, but what the heck — subtle performances from all the leads involved, Arnby’s keen eye for shot composition, and the strong sense of place engendered by the script all combine here to fool you into thinking you’re experiencing a “new take” on one of the most ancient cautionary tales ever, even if you’re not. In the last act, though, the wheels do come off a bit as we delve headlong into, weird as this may sound, Frankenstein territory, with the locals turning violently on Marie and any and everyone who would protect her once her lycanthropy reaches its apex. The effects are good, fear not, but the first 3/4 of this flick plays out in such an understated way that you honestly get the feeling that you’re never really going to see he go “full-on wolf” at all — once you do, well, it’s a bit jarring, to say the least.
Don’t let that sway your opinion toward the “negative” side of the ledger, though, since When Animals Dream really is well worth any horror fan’s time. It’s equal parts coming-of-age romance, dysfunctional family analysis, slow-burn tragedy, and teenage “outsider” melodrama — with a traditional monster-movie ending that, sure, almost lets the whole thing down, but manages to redeem itself quite nicely at almost the last possible moment.
And while I’m sure it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD is you so desire, the simple fact is that it’s a way better use of your Netflix time than watching J.R. Ewing — I mean, Frank Underwood — lie, cheat, browbeat, and swindle his way into the Oval Office. Besides — we’ve already got Donald Trump doing all that crap in real life, anyway, don’t we?