Archive for October 23, 2001

Ginger Snaps

October 23, 2001

“Children know something they can’t tell; they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!”

– Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

What if Red Riding Hood is the wolf? Ginger Snaps recasts the legend as the menstrual trauma of a teenage girl (who is very overdue for her first period, just like Carrie White). Death-obsessed sisters Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) are out after dark one night, despite the threat of an animal that’s been killing local dogs and is half-seriously known as “the Beast of Bailey Downs.” Ginger is attacked by said animal, scratched badly but left alive; younger sister Brigitte comes to believe that the culprit was a werewolf, and that Ginger will begin to change. The joke is that at first, Ginger’s changes seem only an extension of her usual snarly, surly personality, heightened by the new pains of menstruation (“Just so you know,” she tells Brigitte, who asks if it’s just cramps, “the words ‘just’ and ‘cramps’? They don’t go together”).

Solidly written by Karen Walton, who has an unerring ear for how sarcastic teenage girls talk, and tautly directed by John Fawcett, Ginger Snaps successfully operates on dual levels — as a horror movie and as a study of two sisters. Like John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, the film plays by the lycanthropic rules and manages to be scary without losing its goth-inflected wit. Perhaps influenced as much by Joss Whedon’s work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as by Carrie, it mines teenage mishaps for metaphoric horror. A girl coming into her sexual power by the rite of blood is a creature to be feared — that’s a primal, if today politically incorrect, theme in culture. Ginger Snaps restores the power of that theme (at heart, it’s pretty conservative, like most great horror) while adding its own thread of Canadian-ness: As in David Cronenberg’s early movies, the polite placidity of the neighborhood is disrupted by aggression, violence, sex — in short, American-ness.

At first appalled by the changes in her body (body hair in strange places), Ginger grows to appreciate them, to roll with the freaky. She morphs from a sullen misfit in a hoodie to a sexually confident vixen, turning heads in the school halls, wearing clingy clothes that expose her midriff and her newly acquired navel piercing. Brigitte, younger and untouched by the werewolf, looks on in bewilderment, feeling pretty much the way any younger sister would when Big Sis starts noticing boys and stops hanging around with Little Sis in the garage. And what does the girls’ mother (Mimi Rogers in a cartoonishly chipper performance that gradually gathers depth) have to say about Ginger’s behavior? “It’s just a stage,” she reassures her even more clueless husband. Mom, of course, understands a girl’s first period, and insists on supporting Ginger through it, much to the girl’s disgust.

As Ginger snaps (the title is a bit too much of a pun, but I like it; it fits), Brigitte becomes the movie’s hero, researching her sister’s condition and consulting the school dope dealer (Kris Lemche), who knows a lot about plants, including wolfsbane. Ginger settles on a dorky boy (Jesse Moss) and brutally humps him, leaving him with unexplained body hair and, soon enough, a tail just like Ginger’s. It’s the first time I can remember lycanthropy being spread like a sexual disease, and it suits the movie’s body-focused horror. The boy’s first symptom of his werewolfism, ironically, is bloody discharge from the genitalia; he freaks out, as all men do when they piss blood, and we may be thinking that girls are expected to take monthly genital bleeding in stride.

The movie leads up to a Halloween bash, at which Ginger, by now a lot wolfier, gets a lot of compliments on her costume. She’s tasted blood and doesn’t want to be “cured”; Brigitte pursues her with an antidote she and the dealer have cooked up. Meanwhile, good-hearted Mom has discovered some evidence of Ginger’s carnivorous new hobby, and Mimi Rogers is never better than when she deposits an incriminating body part in a Tupperware bowl and burps the lid. Her devotion to her girls no matter what horrors they’ve perpetrated is weirdly touching, but her concern is too little, too late. Ginger Snaps finishes on a rather conventional note, with the bitchily appealing Katharine Isabelle replaced by someone in a wolf suit, and the soulful Emily Perkins reduced to hiding and screaming. But there’s really only one way for a Grimm’s fairy tale like this to end, and it does so with gusto and not a little pathos. In all, this is the smartest, most resonant horror movie to come down the pike in many years.