Written by: John Fawcett (story), Karen Walton (screenplay)
Directed by: John Fawcett
Starring: Katharine Isabelle, Emily Perkins, and Mimi Rogers
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I get this ache... And I, I thought it was for sex, but it's to tear everything to fucking pieces."
Ginger Snaps is a great film about the most horrifying creature imaginable: teenagers. So often reduced to the role of dopey, vacuous victims in horror films, teens are far more interesting when this genre captures the trauma of puberty—the raging hormones, the bodily transformations, the suddenly unloosed psychosexual urges. David Cronenberg never explicitly tackled adolescence, but, if he would have, I’m guessing it would have looked and felt a little bit like Ginger Snaps: smart, bleak, darkly humorous, squirmy, squishy, and undeniably Canadian.
Sisters Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) live in Bailey Downs, a cookie-cutter little suburb the two have grown up to despise for its normality. The two made a suicide pact at age eight and have only become more eccentric: they’re the type of gals who would rather smoke on the sidelines in their hoodies during gym class and film elaborate pseudo-snuff videos starring their own grisly, made-up corpses. Much to the dismay of their kooky mother (Mimi Rogers), their weirdness has manifested physically, as neither have begun menstruating yet despite having reached the ages of fifteen and sixteen. Aside from this bizarre preoccupation, the only other strange intrusion into this lame suburbia is a rash of mysterious dog-slayings attributed to a legendary beast that winds up being all too real when the girls encounter it.
While Ginger Snaps isn’t the first film to reimagine werewolf lore as a puberty fable (both I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Teen Wolf are especially goofy riffs on the theme), it’s the most authentic and affecting because director John Fawcett and writer Karen Walton patiently withhold the monstrous elements. Many monster movies employ this tactic to build up the beast, but Ginger Snaps does so to develop its characters much in the same way John Landis did in An American Werewolf in London. In addition to Cronenberg’s early oeuvre, Ginger Snaps shares a lot of DNA with American Werewolf, particularly in its mixture of visceral gore, uncomfortable laughs, and the use of lycanthropy as a metaphor for phases of life.
But where Landis was concerned with exploring the altered space between friends when new romances blossom, Fawcett sees the werewolf genre as an opportunity to reveal the utter upheaval and turmoil amongst family and friends with the onset of puberty. As far back as The Wolf Man, these films have been enraptured by the horror and sorrow of watching a loved one succumb to primal urges, with so many of them willing to talk about the sentiment but few that actually bother to make you feel it. As glib as it is at times, Ginger Snaps cuts to the damn bone: Ginger and Brigitte’s already offbeat life becomes a tumultuous pubescent nightmare. It’s your high school years amped to operatic levels, as the two have to navigate a minefield of overbearing mothers, bitchy mean girls, boys, and identity crises (the film is especially attuned to the difficulty girls endure when they're suddenly boxed into certain cliques, as evidenced by Ginger's insistence that they "can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease, or the virgin next door").
The key is that audiences spend so much time with these sisters before Ginger’s transformation. These two might remain a mystery to their classmates and parents, but Fawcett invites you into their world not as a voyeur but as an equal. His affection for his characters is evident, particularly during the first half hour, when Ginger Snaps almost feels like a hangout movie with a bloodthirsty beast prowling in the background. Walton’s authentic dialogue sings through the lead actresses’ lived-in performances, with Perkins especially impressing with a turn that’s not showily awkward: this isn’t put-upon Hollywood quirk but rather quietly affecting weirdness. A faint sense of pain and desperation lurks just beneath her sarcastic façade, a trait she shares with the even more caustic Isabelle. Older sister Ginger only seems to be less vulnerable, and Isabelle brilliantly hides that with a sharp performance that becomes more assured as her character loses her humanity.
When Ginger suddenly shows an interest in a jockish boy she previously wouldn’t have been caught dead with, the intrusion is jarring. What was a carefully insulated world between sisters is painfully disrupted by both natural biology and lycanthropy (Ginger’s first period coinciding with the werewolf bite is a bit on the nose, to be sure). The emotional divide is so palatable that the physical horrors would almost feel like accentuations if Fawcett weren’t so committed to dragging out Ginger’s transformation in agonizing fashion. Unlike most werewolf stories, Ginger Snaps doesn’t have its victim transform with every full moon and return to human form; instead, Ginger gradually develops deformities (strange tufts of hair, a tail, longer fingernails) in an arc that echoes The Fly. By the time Ginger’s wolf form is fully revealed, it represents a stunning, heartbreaking loss of humanity—she’s become something so inhuman that it’s pathetic more than terrifying.
That’s a credit to Fawcett and Walton’s handling of the story: even though the climax is soaked in the autumnal campfire atmosphere of a typical Tales from the Crypt episode, you never really want it to become that sort of movie. Ginger Snaps is the rare werewolf movie where you actually want the cure to work out and prevent the victim from ripping her high school’s Halloween dance to shreds. I suppose that makes it one of the finest werewolf flicks ever made and certainly a modern genre standout. It deserved a better fate back in 2000, when it was released to critical acclaim but with little studio support, thus resigning it to the fate of so many cult films before it.
A Collector’s Edition release from Scream Factory practically doubles as canonization at this point, and it’s well-deserved in this case. Making its Blu-ray debut here, the film looks striking thanks to a pristine high-def transfer, while Scream has provided both stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD tracks on the audio side of things. Most noteworthy is the wealth of supplements, as this is one of Scream’s more robust efforts in recent memory. In addition to the special features ported over from the old Canadian special edition DVD (separate commentaries with Fawcett and Walton, a vintage EPK featurette, cast auditions and rehearsals, a look at the special effects, 25 minutes of deleted scenes, a trailer, and TV spots), Scream has commissioned a signature hour-long retrospective featuring new interviews with the cast and crew, plus “Growing Pains,” a roundtable discussion about both Ginger Snaps and other similarly-themed puberty horror films. Watching the latter feature reminded me of how timeless Ginger Snaps is even fifteen years later, for as long as there are teenagers, there will be some who feel like teenage werewolves. Essential!
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