Jacqueline Castel’s debut feature, My Animal, is for queer horror lovers. Inspired by classic monster movies and ’80s horror, it’s another intricately woven tale of otherness and the battle towards self-acceptance. By exploring relevant adolescent struggles and complex family dynamics, as well as themes of inheritance, it navigates the most formative years in a person’s life and the difficulty of navigating it. The film may capture the kind of allegory we’ve seen many times before but the story and character dynamics are compelling. Adding another layer to its themes is a kind of lycanthropic retelling of Beauty and the Beast, as it explores how first love can define us.
The film establishes a gothic atmosphere from the get-go. In the first scene, almost drained of any color, sees a girl transfixed to a television like Carol Anne in Poltergeist. Images of an old live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast flash across the screen. The girl’s body begins to convulse. Her nose begins to bleed and she growls, unleashing her own beast under a full moon. Impressive lighting work here completely blackens her face in the night, all we can see are two glowing dots for eyes as she begins to crawl on the floor. It’s an opening that makes your skin crawl and introduces our protagonist, Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), in werewolf form in a very effective way.
The tone shifts to a pop ‘80s beat, as Heather works out surrounded by body-builder posters. It feels like what we just witnessed was all a dream, but the camera pans over the chains that lie on her red bed sheets to remind us of the truth. She tries to carry the semblance of a normal teenager, spending most of her time at the hockey rink. When she’s not working the concession, she’s playing goalie against her twin brothers, Cooper and Hardy (Charles F. Halpenny and Harrison W. Halpenny). She’s good at it, too, and wants a shot at making the boy’s team. Hockey is an escape from her rocky home life, especially the relationship between her and her alcoholic mother, Patti (Heidi von Palleske). Heather’s “wolfing out” changes their dynamic, with her mother looking at her often with either disgust or hatred. Being a lycanthrope is something Heather inherited from her father, Henry (Stephen McHattie), so of course, he’s the only understanding party. The tension between her mother and father is unbearable, as her mother resents her father for what he has turned their daughter into.
Heather finds peace out on the ice, and so does figure skater, Jonny (Amandla Stenberg). Heather has an instant attraction to her, quickly falling in love with this newcomer, as they spend time getting to know each other on the other side of the concession counter. Jonny has explosive, abusive relationships in her life too, and these tortured souls find solace in each other. To Heather, Jonny represents the normalcy and the escape she craves. But their relationship clashes with small-town mentality, and like Cinderella, going past the clock striking twelve spells trouble for Heather. Her inability to control her animalistic nature in moments of heated passion and under a full moon may risk this relationship being ripped apart.
My Animal is intoxicating, from its imagery to its performances. Menuez and Stenberg have electric chemistry, able to be both incredibly tender with one another while also radiating torrid desire. The film’s hypnotic use of color and framing elevate the attraction between the pair. The film’s sex scene, for example, is shot so artfully and in a way never seen before. The way the camera traces their bodies while glowing in red and blue lighting adds impressive style. It’s always refreshing to explore intimacy between women with a female director at the helm, getting away from the male gaze lends a more gentle touch. A menacing synth score hangs low over the piece, signaling that Heather’s true nature may burst out at any moment. The film keeps the viewer waiting for a full transformation, with so-so CGI, but dizzying shaky cam and sound design are both effective on the imagination as they tease what’s to come.
The ending to Jae Matthews’ script can leave something to be desired in the way that it’s not the more positive story queer audiences are often searching for. But it does mark the start of a journey of self-acceptance for Heather. Every struggle leading up to the film’s ending has been a side quest on the main one to find her identity and embrace her otherness in a world that often shames it. Like most queer horror monster tales, it does the job of hammering home these themes that still carry a lot of weight in their relevancy.