In recent years, there has been an interest to re-examine certain horror films focused on teenage girls. Films like Jennifer’s Body and Ginger Snaps have been re-evaluated — now widely loved for their depiction of female rage, especially as it centers around the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It will be easy to compare Jacqueline Castel’s debut, My Animal, to these films, but the ladder offers a fresh perspective. A vibrant, scarlet-cloaked exploration of identity, My Animal is a strong entry into this genre of horror — one that will leave you howling for more from its more than capable director.
Every full moon, Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) is chained up to her bed and locked inside her room by her family. Normally, this would be a cause of concern for any teenager, but for Heather, it’s protecting everyone else by keeping her in. Heather is a werewolf, the only one in the family besides her father Henry (Stephen McHattie). Despite Heather’s monthly troubles, she works at the hockey rink where she wishes to join the boy hockey team, but is not allowed to because she’s a girl. Then she meets Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), a beautifully troubled girl who looks like she needs saving. As Heather begins to fall for her, she must also struggle with being different, in more ways than one. (Note: Menuez uses they/them pronouns and Stenberg uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, but their characters are referred to using she/her pronouns).
Werewolves are the perfect device to use to symbolize transformation, though Heather’s lycanthropy represents more than just the changes her body might be going through. During this time, her sexuality and identity are being pulled into question as well. When she meets Jonny, Heather is unafraid of her own feelings, but worries about how others — including Jonny — will feel. Taking place in the 1980s, the film creates a sense of fear around being different, and Heather can’t help but wrestle with that throughout the film. Not only is she transforming into a literal “monster,” but she also represents what people at the time thought was unnatural. In order to feel some sense of control around these feelings, Heather focuses on her own body. Pictures of female bodybuilders litter the walls of her room as she bench presses weights. By modifying it in her own way, Heather can hope to gain some sort of control over a body that isn’t accepted in her world. This could also represent feelings that she doesn’t want to identify as a girl anymore, either.
The film’s aesthetics address these themes through rich red colors that occupy every frame. Red hockey seats, red clothing, red walls — it all is set against the stark, white, winter background of the small town where Heather resides. The red represents Heather’s desires — to join the hockey team, and to talk to Jonny, who is usually dressed in red. To match the intensity of Heather’s changing emotions is a thrumming synth score. It emphasizes not only the era we are in, but also the tumultuous emotions our main character is experiencing. Though the run time can drag in places, the slow-burn effect matches Heather’s developing hunger as well as the increasing tensions that hunger causes.
All of Heather’s desires are what separates her from everyone else. Her monster status marks her as a danger to others. At odds with femininity, the way she presents herself immediately outs her to others. Her relationship with Jonny struggles because of the societal pressures to conform. These are things she cannot hide, nor should they be. In the opening scene, Heather is watching a version of Beauty and the Beast. She believes that love can make her ‘beautiful,’ as stated in that film. When she begins to realize that that isn’t the case, a journey of self-acceptance must happen. Acceptance of her own identity, her own feelings, her own monsters.
By drawing comparisons between Heather’s lycanthropy and her queerness, My Animal succeeds in crafting a deliciously rich story of self-discovery. It is unabashedly queer, right down to the neon lighting during a love scene. Bobbi Salvör Menuez delivers a stellar lead performance as Heather, making every moment of anger and doubt understood. Castel has smartly reinterpreted the werewolf trope under a queer lens, which lends itself perfectly to the genre.