Sundance 2023 Review: MY ANIMAL, Visually Arresting Lycanthropy Tale
More than two decades ago, Ginger Snaps,a modest, lycanthropy-themed horror film from Canada, hit the festival circuit, receiving solid critical notices, but limited returns at the box office.
Thankfully, Ginger Snaps didn't disappear into obscurity like so many of its contempories horror-wise. Instead, it received a much-deserved second life on the home video format, impressing graduate students and horror fans alike with its subtext-rich narrative, carefully crafted characters, and knockout performances from its co-stars, Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle. Two sequels followed, but few films in or out of the horror genre since have explored its themes or ideas with similar depth or insight, though My Animal, Jacqueline Castel’s feature-length debut, might come closest.
While Ginger Snaps tied female sexuality — and its first, hormonally driven expression — with lycanthropic transformation, the ‘80s-set My Animal connects lycanthropy with not just female desire, but with queerness as well. The central character, Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez, an actor of uncanny expressivity), already leads a marginal, outsider existence based in large part on her lycanthropy revealed itself at some point My Animal begins.
That, in part, has made her a lonely, isolated figure in a cold, snowbound town, attempting and often failing to coexist with an alcoholic mother, Patti (Heidi von Palleske), angry that the lycanthropy curse descended from Heather’s father and Patti’s husband, Henry (horror veteran Stephen McHattie), has also afflicted Heather. Only the company of her ice hockey-loving twin brothers (Charles and Harrison Halpenny) seems to give her solace.
For Heather, that means locking herself up in her bedroom, chained to her bed, when the full moon arrives over their town. The first scene, shot primarily with the blue glow of a television set, however, suggests that Heather doesn’t always follow the rules.
Sometimes she flaunts them. Sometimes she breaks them, a response fueled by human instincts (teen rebellion) and non-human ones (the desire to hunt, kill, and eat what she kills). Apparently spurred by a Cocteau-influenced episode of Shelley Duvall’s “Fairy Tale Theatre” (specifically, the Beauty and the Beast episode), and Augustus Muller’s drone-heavy, Carpenter-inspired score, Heather escapes into the night.
Though that scene creates a not unreasonable expectation of things to come, Castel deliberately withholds Heather’s transformation from a young, repressed woman to a wolf-human hybrid for most of My Animal’s running time, shifting the focus from Heather’s lycanthropy to her burgeoning, tentative relationship with Jonny (Amandla Stenberg, Bodies, Bodies, Bodies), a figure skater new in town who, not incidentally, practices at the ice rink where Heather works part-time and dreams of becoming a goalie on the boys and/or men’s teams.
The halting, sometimes confusing development of that relationship pushes Heather’s lycanthropy into the background, but it’s only a matter of time before it resurfaces, potentially causing problems for Heather, Jonny, and everyone around them. That “matter of time,” though, will certainly leave some audience members, especially horror fans who prefer a little (or more) blood and gore mixed in with their lycanthropy-themed films (e.g., Ginger Snaps, Dog Soldiers, The Howling, among many others), frustrated, as Castel, working from Jae Matthews’s character-centered screenplay, takes a patient, deliberate, slow-burn approach to the central, relationship-centered story and teasing out its multiple possibilities.
Heather’s queerness already makes her an outsider likely to be rejected by regressive, oppressive townspeople. It’s made all the worse by Heather’s unwillingness to directly confront, let alone acknowledge, her queerness until Jonny appears in her life, doubling the risk; Jonny might not reciprocate her feelings and reject her, and Heather’s lycanthropy might be discovered outside her family. That double risk gives My Animal just enough friction, dissonance, and conflict to carry Matthew’s loosely structured script from dreamlike scene to dreamlike scene, with a seemingly inevitable, potentially tragic denouement awaiting Heather and/or Jonny.
For all of its narrative frustrations, My Animal counters with some of the most visually arresting imagery in recent memory. From the first scene of Heather in her living room on all fours, transfixed by the television, to simple, straightforward nighttime shots bathed in the red glow of a car’s tail lights, to a neon-colored, surrealistic montage, and on through a damaged family’s ritualistic practices meant to make sense out of a meaningless world, Castel, a first-time filmmaker with an experience in shorts and music videos, proves herself a strikingly talented visual artist. Her next effort — whatever it turns out to be — should be on the must-see list for horror and non-horror fans alike.
My Animal premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.