when animals

I’m quite fond of foreign language horror movies.  Mostly, they haven’t succumbed to the slick move toward PG-13 irrelevance, which isn’t to say an R (or 18) rated movie is full of blood and guts and everything that’s superficial about the genre.  No, I’m mostly talking about the fact that character-driven stories are the keys to good horror.  I know, I know, many people are all about the serial murders of a youthful cast within 120 minutes.  Whatever floats your boat, I won’t judge.  Especially because my own character-driven snobbery doesn’t necessarily produce great movies either.

Case in point, When Animals Dream, from Denmark, written by Rasmus Birch, directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby, with a central performance by Sonia Suhl.  It’s no spoiler to say that this is a new addition to the werewolf sub-genre, but it is a somewhat unique take on it, and that I won’t spoil.  I suppose that sounds all very cryptic, and perhaps indicative of something exciting and wildly original – unfortunately those are not adjectives I can really apply here.

I’m all for trying to do something different with familiar tropes, but you also need to deliver with a certain amount of style – it is horror, after all.  When moviemakers decide to eschew the genre they’re working in, the result comes off feeling as the moviemakers are slumming it in the production, unable or unwilling to commit fully to it.  If this movie was made in the US, that’s exactly how I’d feel about this movie, because about ten minutes in, I realized that it reminded me of Maggie, the recent outside-of-his-wheelhouse Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, and that feeling stuck with me through the 85-minute running time.  Now, I didn’t dislike Maggie, I felt it was at least an attempt to do something different with the played out zombie sub-genre, but I did feel it was lacking any kind of style or pacing, and the story left a lot to be desired, but what sat with me longer was the feeling that the moviemakers were trying to distance themselves from the genre.

European sensibilities aside, any resemblance to Maggie is mostly due to the European approach to moviemaking, so there are a lot of things I took into account when thinking about When Animals Dream.  At the end of the day, a movie has to grab me, and this one didn’t really.  Using horror as a metaphor for a young woman’s coming of age isn’t exactly original, (Carrie, Ginger Snaps , “The Curse”, from Swamp Thing vol 2 #40), but not terrible either – I’ve seen a lot worse.  I wasn’t bothered by that as much I was bothered by the fact the movie just didn’t engage me.  I was interested throughout, but movies are entertainment, and they need to produce something more than just interest.   As an aside, I think this is the kind of movie that will get rave reviews from some people, and I’ve noticed in genre movies, especially horror, the tendency is to praise movies that simply try to do something different, as if that is the beating heart of the production, not the material things that actually matter, like a great screenplay.  Myself, I’ve always been about the total package, even though my mind is engaged by writing first and foremost.

It’s a shame I felt this way while watching, because it’s obvious the moviemakers produced something that most low-budget productions would be proud of.  Similar budgets in the US (this feels like a $5M production) would produce the kind of cheap garbage that fills the blank spaces on Netflix, but this seemed like an honest attempt to make a different kind of horror movie.  I’ll say that it’s successful at least, the performances are good, and the movie is shot with an independent spirit, but all these elements do not combine well enough, and at the end of the day I was disappointed.  What deficiencies exist elsewhere, they’re almost offset by the setting and the characters, all of which is suffused with an austerity, a sparseness, that feels 100% authentic – in the end, these were the aspects of the production I enjoyed the most.


This review was originally published on 3/03/2016 at

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