Welcome back to our newly revamped “Retro Reviews” column, where we explore both the movies you know and love, as well as the oft overlooked gems you should be spending more time with. Our ninth entry is the coming-of-age Canadian werewolf nightmare, Ginger Snaps (2000)…
There’s a simple fact that needs to be stated at the front of this article: horror movies revolving around women are certainly more engaging than those centered around men. From the earliest days of my film-watching “career”, hidden beneath my parents’ bed while Halloween blared on basic cable*, I was always infinitely more interested in movies that focused on the horrors of femininity. Whether it was Michael Myers stalking Laurie Strode through the streets of Haddonfield or young mother Rosemary finding out that her baby was sold to her Satan worshipping neighbors, the tribulations women faced in my favorite genre always seemed to represent more complex societal issues (the pervasive invasion of evil, the possession and control of a woman’s body) than those of their male counterparts. Add on the fact that women are simply much more emotionally complex creatures (thus making for drama almost equal to their psychological complexity), and you have a perfectly logical argument for my favoring of female-starring terror pictures.
Unfortunately, many of the lesser cinematic shock jocks throughout history extracted the wrong lessons from their superiors. Many took John Carpenter pitting three beautiful best friends against a Shatner-masked maniac at mere face value, thinking that it was the boobs and violence that solely led to the picture becoming “the most successful independent film of all time”. At its worst, horror descends into misogynistic mayhem, utilizing female leads as nothing more than titillation lightning rods, whether they were being bedded by a jock or beheaded by some dime-store Myers knock-off (or his slow witted cousin, Jason Voorhees). However, one of the true under-seen gems of the genre not only molds two of the best female characters horror has ever seen, it uses them as universal icons for a girl’s ascension into full-blown womanhood. Nearly fifteen years after it first hit Canadian theaters, Ginger Snaps is still not only the best werewolf movie since Joe Dante’s The Howling, but also a testament to the power strong female characters bring to any cinematic endeavor, genre or otherwise.
Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald (Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins) want to die, over and over again. Whether it be by hanging, electrocution or impalement on one of the white picket fences that line their neighborhood, the girls are obsessed with capturing the ultimate moments of their miserable, suburban teenage lives. They’re inseparable, knowing that when they go, they’re going to do so together — a trip into the beyond that has to be much more entertaining than Canadian high school. Meanwhile, a beast is tearing apart the neighborhood pets, devouring their insides and leaving the remains for mothers and their tiny babies to discover in the backyard. It isn’t until the two are attacked by the “Beast of Bailey Downs” that death becomes a near reality for the two girls. Once Ginger begins sprouting hairs in odd places and (quite literally) devouring the local boys, it’s up to Brigitte to come up with a cure…or put her sister down for good.
The central metaphor of lycanthropy standing in for a girl beginning her first menstruation period (the “cycle” of the moon…get it?) is one that’s so intrinsically genius that it’s hard to believe no one thought to use it before the year 2000. As Ginger begins to “change” and develop a hunger (both for flesh and carnal desires), it causes a rift to form and then widen between the sisters. Brigitte can’t believe that Ginger would give up on their fascination in favor of the jocks who ogle them during field hockey practice, but the animalistic instinct inside of her needs to be fulfilled. Karen Walton’s script milks the concept for all it’s worth, even going as far as to transform Ginger’s ailment into a form of STD, transmitted to all those she copulates with. Sure the picture becomes somewhat puritanical at points, damning the boys for engaging in teenage sex (thus inverting the anti-feminist trope found in many horror films — especially slashers), but the subversive elements of the story undercut the possibly unintentional preaching. Because while sex is tut-tutted via werewolf mutilation, it’s a drug dealer (Kris Lemche) who seemingly holds the key to Ginger’s salvation, brewing cocktails with Brigitte in the hopes of reeling the new Beast in.
Though much of Ginger Snaps is Isabelle’s star-making show (and trust me, we’ll get to her performance in just a moment), Emily Perkins does a fantastic job playing the wounded protector, tirelessly seeking to “cure” her sister and bring her back to normal. Perkins lends Brigitte such an exasperated desperation that your heart breaks every time the girl fails. Much like Sissy Spacek sold the fear of entering womanhood in De Palma’s Carrie, the young actress makes you feel the terror and sadness of losing your best friend to growing up. All the while, she never once lets Brigitte slip into “goth girl” cliché, bringing a distinct strength to the character that keeps her from ever becoming an outcast caricature. It’s a subtly powerful performance, full of pathos and even a hint of full-blown badassery, as she shows down with her sister’s icky, snarling, four-legged form. In short, Emily Perkins is brilliant.
But let’s face it, as much as I fawn over her sister, Katharine Isabelle molds Ginger into a full-blown horror icon by the film’s final reel. As she grows into her “new body”, Ginger embraces her sexuality and transforms it into a weapon. This hair-covered succubus turns heads so fast that they’re liable to snap off of necks and go rolling down the high school halls, and Isabelle relishes the pin-up model murderess air. Every line is delivered with a flip of the tongue and flash of her tigress eyes (which, at times, make the character feel like a teenage play on Natassja Kinski’s similar role in Paul Schrader’s Cat People ). How both Isabelle and Perkins continued to toil away in minor roles after this movie is still kind of a mystery to me, as even though the film only reached “cult” status, the performances are strong enough that they should’ve caught the eye of every producer in both Toronto and Hollywood.
There are elements of Ginger Snaps that have aged about as well as a case of Molson left for months in your dad’s hot garage. Many of the sets look cheap, almost like a grimier version of Degrassi Junior High, while the fashion and nu metal soundtrack place the picture squarely in that post-1999 horror “Dead Zone” (the space immediately after the meta-textual Scream riffs and right before Hostel and Saw-influenced torture porn came to rise). Yet no amount of recycled X-Files sets can take away from the incredibly nuanced script (it should come as no shock to learn that Walton now writes for the superlative series Orphan Black). The screenwriter (along with co-writer/director John Fawcett) captures the angst of women coming-of-age in a way few films since Carrie ever have. If we’re being completely be honest, you could say Snaps one-ups that De Palma classic, combining thematic symbolism with black humor (just look at the choices of dessert served to both sisters and which one oozes strawberry syrup). Yet beyond all of the pubescent horror is a simple tale of two sisters combating their growing apart from one another that becomes genuinely touching and emotionally devastating by the end, culminating in a final shot that moves me to tears every time I sit down with the movie.
Ginger Snaps is the first film of a trilogy that, sadly, is rather forgettable following the brilliant kick-off. But regardless of shitty sequels (which, if held against their predecessors, would diminish the value of nearly every great film in the horror genre), Fawcett’s loving ode to teenage feminine angst and Lon Chaney is top-tier werewolf cinema. Monster movies are few and far between these days and creature features centered around the trials and tribulations of womanhood are even harder to come across. Ginger Snaps is a solid reminder that no matter how “overdone” your monster may be, there’s still room for freshness, should the filmmaker be willing to actually let the beast stand for something. In this case, the monster within becomes an avatar for the struggles and strife mostly ignored by an art form dominated by the male perspective (and, to be fair, is only co-written by a woman here). We need more filmmakers jumping on the bandwagon of telling women’s stories in all genres, but especially in one that so often falls into blatant misogyny and glorifies wanton violence against the best of our species.
*At ten years old, this is truly my initial memory of falling in love with the medium — horror in particular.
Ginger Snaps is now available on beautiful Blu-ray and DVD from the fine folks at Shout!/Scream Factory.