It would be easy to describe Jonas Alexander Amby's When Animals Dream as Let the Right One In meets Ginger Snaps. So easy, in fact, that I've heard several people describe it just that way. And it makes sense: it's a deliberately paced, lyrical, Scandinavian film that follows a teenage girl (Sonia Suhl as Marie) as she transforms into a werewolf. But this shorthand misses something in the film's unusual execution, in the emotional impact of this journey. It's a horror film that relies on intimacy and personal resonance over jump-scares, and it's incredibly effective in that approach.
Marie lives in a tiny fishing village with her kindly father and unresponsive, wheelchair-bound mother, whom Marie strongly favors. They're both beautiful blondes with unwavering stares; they both seem unpopular in this crummy little town, for reasons at first unclear. The film opens with Marie's visit to the village doctor; she has a slight rash on her chest, barely noticeable, but the doctor is examining her with all the solemnity and thoroughness usually reserved for a tumor. Marie starts working at the local fish factory, and though she's treated well by her neighboring co-worker and a local delivery boy named Daniel, with whom Marie shares an instant attraction, it's clear that no one is quite comfortable around this lovely, stoic girl.
As Marie's rash starts to change, to develop into something deeper, we learn more about her mother's condition and the history she has with the town. When Animals Dream is interesting in that it takes several turns that distinguish it from similar films - for instance, that the residents of this village seem aware of Marie's mother's lycanthropy (as it's soon revealed to be) and have enacted an uneasy truce with Marie's father to keep her drugged and lethargic, no longer a danger to those around her but utterly insensible to her surroundings. Marie walks in on her father lovingly shaving her mother's back, and she seems angry, affronted. Later, when Marie and Daniel are about to have sex (she whispers to him in a noisy bar, "I'm transforming into a monster and I really need to get laid before. Do you think you can help me?") and he notes the soft fur sprouting on her back, she pulls away, telling him not to touch her, to leave her. It's only when he tells her that she's beautiful, when he strokes her fur and makes it clear that he still wants her, that she begins to kiss him again.
Marie, for all her outward tranquility, appears to harbor deep recesses of rage at the very idea that she should have to hide who she is, as her mother has been forced to hide for years. She isn't ashamed of what she's becoming, and she resents her father, her doctor and the entire town for implying that she should be. She sees the waste her once-vibrant mother has become in the pursuit of normalcy, and Marie doesn't want that for herself. She wants to be different, to be vicious, to be what others might consider ugly. And of course, once the transformation finally occurs, once we see Marie in full sunlight (the rules here are nebulous and unimportant), wholly changed into the monster she once feared becoming - she is beautiful. She doesn't look like anyone else, and that is beautiful.
The climax of When Animals Dream occurs a few minutes before the big action scene, or as big an action scene as this quiet, little film provides, because the kills are really the least important part of the movie. While that might disappoint some viewers - and understandably, though I like the singularity of it - it's not an accident, or a way to cover for budgetary limitations. Marie only fully becomes a werewolf after she accepts the change inside of her, and refuses to let anyone debase her for it. In When Animals Dream's most crucial moment, Marie becomes entirely herself inside, and after that, what happens on the outside is secondary.
Like all werewolf movies, When Animals Dream is about change, the terrifying inexorability of it. But more to the point, it's about the ways that society tries to tell teenage girls what they can never be: they can't be passionate, they can't be scary, they can't be ugly. Marie doesn't let anyone tell her what she cannot be, and I love her for that.