Film Review: “My Animal” — The Beast Within
By Nicole Veneto
In her debut feature, music video director Jacqueline Castel supplies a moody and explicitly queer spin on the metaphor of monster as a maligned queer subject.
My Animal, directed by Jacqueline Castel. Currently available to purchase on Amazon, Vudu, Apple TV, and YouTube.
DISCLAIMER: This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being critiqued would not exist without the labor of writers and actors.
The history of horror films is intimately intertwined with the history of queer cinema. From the early days of German Expressionism all the way through the gothic castles of studio monster movies, horror cinema drew on a rich subtextual foundation that has subsequently morphed into an entire subgenre in and of itself. Recent films such as Titane and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair have made the underlying queer themes of Cronenbergian body horror explicit as allegories for dysphoria and gender transition. But the beating heart of queer horror has and always will be the relationship between the socially abject monster (witches, vampires, ghouls, and, or course, werewolves) with queer subjectivity. The first feature by music video director Jacqueline Castel, My Animal, is a lycanthropic coming-of-age story that doubles down on the latent queerness many have read into the genre’s most famous feminist take on werewolves, John Fawcett’s cult hit Ginger Snaps. Castel supplies a moody and explicitly queer spin on the metaphor of monster as a maligned queer subject.
Set in snowy northern Canada sometime in the ’80s, My Animal follows Heather (the phenomenal Bobbi Salvör Menuez, whose vulnerability and internal struggles are embodied like a second skin), an outcast young hockey goalie with a terrible family secret. All but explicitly stated, Heather suffers from a hereditary form of lycanthropy triggered by a full moon, which requires her to shackle herself to her bed (against bright red sheets) every night. Her human mother (Heidi von Palleske) is a hopeless alcoholic who swings between caring maternal figure and spiteful drunk on a dime. The only real emotional support in Heather’s lonely life comes from her werewolf father (veteran actor Stephen McHattie in a heartbreaking supporting performance), who acts as Heather’s main protector and confidant when not coaching her and her young Carrot Top twin brothers on the ice. Besides her beastly condition, the tomboyish Heather grapples with her own burgeoning sexuality, thumbing through magazines of female body builders and watching women’s wrestling with one hand down her pants on the family television. Refreshingly, she never once questions her own desires or her S&M tinged fantasies. But, predictably, small town life is about as accepting of gay people as it is of shapeshifters.
Heather’s lone wolf existence takes a sharp turn one night while out buying booze for her mother when she locks eyes with beautiful figure skater Jonny (Amandla Stenberg continuing a winning streak of queer films, also serving as executive producer) as she’s stealing beers from the convenience store. The connection is instantaneous, and their subsequent meet cute at the rink the following day solidifies the spark between them in a way that moves Heather’s entire world into Jonny’s orbit. For Heather, Jonny offers a tempting opportunity to escape the powerlessness she feels within the confines of their podunk town. Possibilities of teenage recklessness untethered from moon cycles immediately open up. Once Jonny becomes a constant presence in her life, Heather’s other responsibilities fall to the wayside. And for Jonny, Heather becomes a welcome reprieve from her emotionally abusive relationship with shithead boyfriend Rick (Cory Lipman, whose physiognomy can be described as “’80s high school bully”) and the pressures her barely closeted father puts on her skating career. Though emotionally fulfilling for both, Heather and Jonny’s relationship is not meant to be a fable about escaping small town bigotry or lycanthropy. Despite the opening scene, where a longer-haired Heather watches Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre adaptation of Beauty and the Beast seemingly outside of time and space, this is no fairy tale romance. Expect no happy endings here.
My Animal indeed owes a debt to Ginger Snaps, and pays homage to its predecessor in recognizable ways, from its small town Canada setting right down to Heather’s fiery ginger hair. Yet My Animal is a different beast altogether, more interested in painting a methodical character study than it is in reveling in gory werewolf mythos. There’s ample similarity to be found with last year’s Bones and All as well, albeit Guadagnino’s cannibalistic love story has more meat on its bones than Castel’s slowly paced portrait of first love and first loss. At times, My Animal’s pacing borders on slow to the point of mundanity, but Bryn McCashin’s cinematography and Castel’s eye for framing create an impeccably hazy atmosphere throughout, with blood-red interiors and entire scenes drenched in Argento-esque lighting. Besides a fruitful career directing music videos for Zola Jesus, Castel boasts an impressive cinematic resume of collaborators; she’s worked with everyone from David Lynch to John Carpenter to Jim Jarmusch. Carpenter’s influence especially can be found in the film’s pounding synth score composed by Augustus Muller, who comprises half the Northampton-based music duo Boy Harsher with the film’s writer Jae Matthews.
Stenberg and Salvör Menuez share ample chemistry together, including a steamy love scene reminiscent of Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and a dream sequence involving an egg yolk. Yet the film’s emotional core lies with Heather and her father more than it does with Heather and Jonny. After Jonny grows distant following their first (and only) sexual encounter, Heather shares a quiet moment over some beers with her dad in their snowy backyard. “Some day, someone’s gonna come along and accept you for who you are,” he tells her, a string of words offering unconditional acceptance that many gay and lesbian people have longed to hear from their own fathers. The rest of the town grows colder and meaner toward Heather in the aftermath of the affair — spitting slurs in her face with horrifying boldness and barely restrained violence in their eyes. Her father remains the only one who truly accepts Heather for who she is.
Though I really wanted more from Castel’s debut feature, I get the feeling that My Animal will mean a lot to the right person who encounters it. It’s an assured and stylish first feature that will easily find its audience among queer horror fans ravenous to see themselves and their stories presented without layers of subtext to dig through.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and her podcast on Twitter @MarvelousDeath.