October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
Ginger Snaps (2000)
Starring: Katherine Isabelle, Emily Perkins, Kris Lemche, Mimi Rogers
Synopsis: Brigette (Perkins) and Ginger (Isabelle) are high school outcasts, anti-social and obsessed with death to the point of having made a suicide pact as children. Their main hobby is filming and photographing elaborate, realistic, and gory scenes of their own demise. They are each other’s only friend, and their parents, particularly their overly cheery, pushy mother, don’t understand them. Suddenly, during a string of mysterious attacks on neighborhood dogs, everything changes. Ginger gets her first period and then is attacked by a creature of some kind while she and Brigette are in the middle of playing a prank on their main antagonist, a cheerleader named Trina. Ginger heals swiftly from the attack, but over the course of the next month begins to change. Her teeth become fanglike, she sprout hairs from her swiftly-healing wounds, and even grows a tail. Her behavior changes too, she fights with Brigette and becomes more outgoing, sexual, and even predatory, leaving her younger sister behind. Brigette figures out that Ginger is transforming into a werewolf and getting increasingly out of control, to the point where she savages and infects her boyfriend and kills Trina, who comes looking for her dog. Brigette, with the help of greenhouse worker and pothead, Sam (Lemche), figures out how to make a cure from the monkshood flower (wolfsbane) and attempts to save Ginger. But Ginger isn’t interested in being saved. Before she can be cured, she transforms fully into wolf form, killing Sam and finally attacking Brigette who defends herself with a silver knife, stabbing Ginger. As wolf-Ginger lays dying, Brigette puts her head on her sister’s chest and cries.
Ginger Snaps is a low budget Canadian horror movie that somehow manages to be the most interesting werewolf film I’ve ever seen. In historical and popular culture werewolves are primarily used as a symbol of the monster who lives inside of a man, the part of himself that he hates but can’t control. To a lesser degree and more recently they have been used as a metaphor for puberty, a less dramatic but no less upsetting change we all go through. Ginger Snaps relies primarily on this latter comparison, though with a heavy dose of the former, but it does so in a far more gritty and gory way than the average teen werewolf flick, and twists the usual narrative to focus on the specific troubles of female adolescence.
Puberty is messy for everyone, but it is on the whole a more gruesome experience for girls, who have to deal not just with the twin horrors of bleeding and pain, but their new status as sexual beings who have to deal with their own desires as well as wanted and unwanted lust from boys and swift, pitiless judgement from their peers. As Ginger puts succinctly, “A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease, or the virgin next door.” Even Brigette, who expresses not a mote of sexuality and swathes herself in layers of fabric to avoid any interest, is labelled a slut for merely speaking to a boy, simply because her sister is dressing provocatively and sleeping around.
In a world where girls’ behavior and desires are so intensely scrutinized by everyone, including each other, is it any wonder the freedom from control offered by lycanthropy is so alluring to Ginger? Her fascination with death, with getting out of their town, getting away from her mother, are partially symptoms of her desire to be free of the judgement of others. The wolf offers her a way to express her desires, to bypass the social system meant to keep women in line. She recognized instantly that being the hunter is preferable to being prey.
But a lot has been written about puberty and sexuality and feminism in this movie. I’m not really covering new ground here. The general sibling dilemma too, of the older sister reaching maturity and suddenly moving in a different world than the younger, causing a rift between them, is also well-traveled territory. Less often discussed, I feel, are the problems in the existing relationship between the sisters. There is a codependency between them, and an abusive dynamic from the start that is deeply disturbing and sets the stage for the werewolf drama to play out.
The girls really only have each other at the beginning, and Ginger is happy to keep it that way. When Brigette expresses doubts about the suicide pact they made at the age of eight, Ginger tries to guilt and cajole her into going through with it. Whether Ginger actually wants to die (with or without her sister) is debatable, but there’s definitely a sense that Ginger feels ownership over Brigette’s life. She’s fiercely protective of Brigette, but also possessive and bullying. She wants Brigette dependent on her, even when she’s not dependent on Brigette. Or at least, seems not to be.
In the end, Ginger isn’t really interested in the boys and the sex and the carnage. She’s interested in the power – her sexual power over the boys, her power over the life and death of her victims, and her power over her sister. She wants Brigette to be like her. She wants Brigette to want to be like her. And she’d rather see Brigette dead than free to choose her own way. Even though, by the end, no trace of humanity can be seen in the transformed Ginger, her base motivations have not really changed since the beginning of the movie.
She leans into the transformation nearly every step of the way. Perhaps in an entirely human form she would have learned to rise above her instincts as she matured, but really, the wolf didn’t do anything but enable what was already there. Ginger had plenty of chances to turn away from her destructive course, and took none of them. Brigette is loyal to her till the end, although not at the expense of her own life. She believes Ginger just needs the cure and everything will be fine, but the truth is that what was wrong with Ginger and with their relationship was there long before she was infected.
Ginger Snaps is an impressive, complicated movie with a nuanced morality that is rare to find in horror films. The low budget shows, especially in the effects, although the director manages to disguise the cheapness through the expediency of buckets and buckets of blood. It doesn’t shy away from body horror and it doesn’t shame the protagonists, which is a nice change of pace. The quality of the acting and script more than make up for the lack of production quality.
Finally, I would like to add a word of praise for the characterization and performance by Mimi Rogers as Ginger and Brigette’s mother. At first she is a stereotype, an out-of-touch housewife who is too cheerful, too eager, and too oblivious to be of any use to her daughters. But over the course of the movie you start to see that she understands a lot more than she lets on. She knows something is off with her daughters, she knows there are cracks in her marriage. Relentless positivity is the only way she knows how to cope with these problems that are so far beyond her control, but it doesn’t mean she’s oblivious, even if she doesn’t understand the whole scope of the situation.
One of the highlights of the movie for me was when she realizes that Ginger has killed the cheerleader. She doesn’t try to pretend her daughter couldn’t do something like that. She doesn’t even say, “I’m sure it was an accident”. She immediately sets out to find the girls, promising to go on the run with them, leave their father, and blow up the house rather than see them jailed. Underneath her clueless suburban mom exterior lies a backbone of steel and an unconditional love for her children that is rarely portrayed with such subtly. All the actresses are great, but in her small role I feel Rogers really shone.
Rating: 7 dour Brigettes out of 10 – A female-driven horror movie with excellent acting, scripting, and an innovative idea that doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant outcomes.
Enjoyability: 5 werewolves out of 10 – Some great moments of dark humor and very touching scenes, but extremely hard to watch, particularly the latter half.