Directed by: John Fawcett
Written by: Karen Walken, John Fawcett
Starring: Katharine Isabelle, Emily Perkins, Mimi Rogers
Released: 1997 / Genre: Horror / Country: Canada / IMDB
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It would be easy to give Ginger Snaps extra credit for its title. A perfectly concise summation of the film’s central story – it’s about Ginger and she indeed does snap – while also showing off a wry sense of humour with its pun on the cookie of the same name. It also works on the senses to make allusions about the genre it modernises. Perhaps the best title of a werewolf movie I’ve ever come across. It beats the heck out of the uninspired Wolf or the convoluted An American Werewolf In London. And this film deserves an edgy title to go along with its unique tale of teenage angst set against the pale blue light of a full moon.
“I’m growing a goddamn tail outta my ass.”
Director John Fawcett, who has had mixed success with television work including Xena: Warrior Princess and an American remake of the critically acclaimed British series Queer as Folk, is curiously in his element with Ginger Snaps. He bases the story in faceless, colourless neighbourhoods, and the girls’ home has the sort of mass produced interior design you could find anywhere in the world. Indeed, with the unfinished cardboard walls and unfurnished emptiness of their basement, the house is less a home, more a stop-gap. When we meet Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and her sister Brigitte (Emily Perkins) they display a penchant for death, a willingness to flee the family. This need to escape, through suicide if necessary, is less morbid because of Fawcett’s icy window on to their lives – they are social outcasts at school, their father is cowardly, their mother overbearing, and their house is a shell. Sleeping in the same room, both in single beds, their walls black and adorned with pictures of fake suicide, their reading lamp a fluorescent tube; this home is no more than a prison cell.
Ginger Snaps begins with a young boy playing in a sandpit. His mother smiles at her son lovingly but her expression quickly breaks to one of shock when she discovers blood on his hands. Checking the kennel she discovers the family dog has been violently mutilated. We soon learn this is one of many such instances of dogs and other animals having been found mutilated in the area. The opening reminds me of the film version of Stephen King’s It, when a mother watches her child playing in the garden only for the kid to be snatched by the evil clown Pennywise. Like Ginger Snaps, we quickly learn the strange disappearance of children has been occurring for some time.
It’s not the only reference to horror cinema found in Ginger Snaps. There’s a distinct nod to the cold backdrops that make up the worlds of David Cronenberg and an obvious attachment to his seminal work Shivers. We are introduced to two depressed teenage sisters who fantasise about death. At school they mope around as loners, picked on by the other kids for being strange. When Ginger is attacked late at night by an animal, which is run over and killed by a passing motorist saving Ginger’s life, she begins to exhibit physical changes. Her wounds heal inhumanly quickly, white hair appears on her chest, and a tail begins to grow from her back. Brigitte believes she was bitten by a werewolf and that she will soon become one herself. Interestingly, the mythology of the werewolf is retraced across a woman’s menstrual cycle. The effect of being bitten acts like a virus that consumes and eventually overpowers the victim. This is similar, not least because it has a sexual undertone, to Cronenberg’s viral infection in Shivers, but the reference becomes explicit when Ginger spreads the virus through unprotected sex, beginning a similar change in a classmate.
Indeed, the film isn’t a retread of a human turning into a werewolf when the moon is full, causing some anonymous character’s untimely and very violent death, and then turning back again. Here the werewolf’s curse is slow acting and more akin to the menstrual cycle than the lunar. Ginger’s slow transformation sees a delayed puberty take effect through the sudden introduction of animalistic urges. She begins the film uninterested in sex, and appears to shun womanhood at every turn. When she has her period she sees it as something ugly and feminine, seemingly wanting to remain in a sort of asexual, non-gendered state. Yet, as the werewolf infection takes hold, it brings out the symptoms commonly seen during puberty. She suddenly has a craving for sex, she makes time for her appearance, and she exhibits various mood swings.
The link between the monstrous werewolf affliction and puberty is interesting. Ginger fantasises about suicide along with her sister as if the world fails to understand their collective plight. It also suggests a Peter Pan complex; that Ginger doesn’t want to grow up. Most likely, it isn’t that she wants to avoid womanhood and everything that goes with it, she simple wants to avoid becoming her mother. That creates a wonderful dynamic between this teenage girl’s werewolf infection, that will ultimately change her for good, and the fact she wants to avoid, at all costs, becoming the woman she despises. At once, the wolf inside forces her to grow up but crucially ensures she will never follow in her mother’s footsteps.
But the film is as much about Ginger’s younger sister Brigitte’s plight as she desperately tries to find a cure to save Ginger’s life. As her sister begins to change – showing signs of puberty she herself is fearful of and yet to experience – she must grow out of her shell. She has always been under the thumb of Ginger but now she has an element of control. Actress Emily Perkins is suitably downbeat in the role of Brigitte, her hair-across-the-face styling and head-down posture the quiet, reserved and shy counter-punch to Ginger’s growing confidence, flirtatious attitude and deadly intent. The beautiful Katharine Isabelle is even better as Ginger, displaying the red-headed super-bitch with enough gusto to make the unbelievable believable.
You’ve got to give Ginger Snaps a lot of credit for not only looking at both the werewolf and coming of age genres with a fresh pair of eyes but combining the two to make a thoroughly engaging horror film. It isn’t perfect – sometimes the message is drummed in too heavily and the parents lack depth, while the ending is perhaps too definitive when there is probably room for redemption. Yet, Ginger Snaps remains an original addition to the genre.
Review by Daniel Stephens – See all reviews