“I get this ache… And I, I thought it was for sex, but it’s to tear everything to fucking pieces.”
Another day, another movie about the grossness of periods. Women, am I right?
Actually, when it comes to Ginger Snaps, it’s more like “Canadians, eh?” What is it up in there in the Great White North that lends itself so readily to body horror? I bet it’s the single payer healthcare. Maybe knowing you won’t pay for the consequences makes it easier to experiment with Cronenbergian transformations. Or maybe it’s just the same general malaise that leads to disaffection and quirkiness among the Canadian teen set.
I’m on record saying that werewolf movies just plain suck, and I still believe that. Ginger Snaps manages to be pretty good anyway, not only because it makes some smart choices on how to avoid some of the classic werewolf movie pitfalls but also because the film really nails the central relationship between its two main characters–and what that relationship says about the horrors of adolescence. Powerful performances and strong themes make up for the film’s minor flaws, and what lingers is the film’s complex approach to issues of sex, gender, and family.
The film begins with a short but significant scene that lays out several of the themes of the story. A young child plays innocently in his backyard. When his mother looks at him, she realizes there’s now blood on his face–he’s been playing with a severed paw. The rest of the dog’s body lies horribly mutilated in front of the doghouse; as the mother screams, the camera zooms into the dark tunnel beyond. So we have childhood innocence tainted by blood, and then symbolically spend the rest of the movie inside a dark, yonic tunnel outside of which is a bloody, upsetting mess. I’m not making this stuff up, folks.
Anyway, soon after that we’re meeting the main characters, sisters Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) Fitzgerald. Closely bonded sisters, the pair are adorably morbid (amorbidle? Okay, okay, I will stop trying for portmanteaus using the word “adorable.” You win this round, New Girl). For a class project generically themed around “life in our suburban Canadian town” the girls decide to express themselves with a series of photos faking their death or suicide. (Hard to say for sure but I think there are some horror movie references in there, too–one features the “Long is the way and hard” quote from Se7en and another is, if not a deliberate reference to the end of The Hand the Rocks the Cradle, at least howling up the same tree.) Apparently the girls have been into death since they were eight, when they slashed their palms and made a blood pact: “Out by sixteen or dead on the scene, but together forever.” “United against life as we know it.” There’s a nice shot of the two girls in their creepy basement bedroom, the balanced frame suggesting that they’re just alike. That they really aren’t is their tragedy.
Typical for horror movies, Ginger Snaps establishes from the outset a community of mundane conformists plagued by a mostly unacknowledged menace–specifically, some kind of wild animal that keeps killing dogs in the area. A different kind of dog is represented by Jason (Jesse Moss) who sets his sights on the more conventionally attractive Ginger. Although both girls hide behind skull necklaces and Columbine-esque trenchcoats, Ginger’s red hair and louder personality makes her more interesting to Jason than Brigitte (who is endearingly mousy, with a perpetually worried face and awkward brown hair), not that Ginger’s in the mood. The two girls are “joined at the wrist,” as their mother puts it, going everywhere together. Ginger even steps in when Brigitte is bullied by Trina (Danielle Hampton), who is exactly the kind of ordinary girl who is casually mean to her lessers and pines after the local drug dealer, who is casually mean to her. (I mean, who wouldn’t pine for him? He’s handsome and owns his own van!) Ie., Trina represents everything G&B resent about suburbia. Note: all of this happens during field hockey practice, because Canada.
Everything changes the day Ginger gets her first period, which is also the night the girls get attacked by what we can all agree is totally a werewolf. It’s a full moon and everything. Moons, of course, are symbolically connected to both werewolves and the female menstrual cycle, as well as emotional changes ranging from moodiness to violent, insane behavior. Out in the woods with Brigitte, Ginger touches a sudden trickle of blood down her thigh and shows her sister: “I’ve got the curse, B.” It’s another instance of Ginger Snaps summing up a complex tangle of thematics in a single moment. Great stuff.
After Ginger is bitten, the werewolf is killed accidentally (long story), and the film shifts to focus on her transformation. The movie isn’t entirely clear on the rules of lycanthropy–in fact, it amusingly goes out of its way to say “Forget everything you know about werewolves from the movies!” before giving us essentially the same information. Silver, we’re told, isn’t necessary, but maybe it helps? Later in the film the local drug dealer Sam (Kris Lemche) helps Brigitte concoct a cure for the disease, an idea that goes back to the very first Hollywood werewolf movie, Werewolf of London; but why not just go with the classic trope of wolfsbane? “It’s called monkshood, it’s a cousin of wolfsbane.” Oh, okay.
The film is so strong emotionally that it would have done better not to try so hard at making the lycanthropy seem rational and scientific. Because what’s important are the changes that Ginger is undergoing. Her bite wound heals. She starts growing fur on her legs and chest. Her hair is going blonde. Her nails are more like claws, her teeth more like fangs. She’s even growing a tail, which is a super repulsive, very Cronenberg-style wiggling flesh protrusion. In a way these physical changes seem part and parcel with the “don’t fuck with me I’m into death” accessories the girls wear–just another way for Ginger to stand apart. If she’s not going to be able to conform with the rest of her classmates, she might as well be very, very different. And if these changes were all that were happening, that would be okay; but just like the onset of Ginger’s menstrual cycle, lycanthropy comes with powerful emotional shifts. Ginger is suddenly beset by ravenous appetites–for sex, for meat, for violence and destruction. The film’s (overlong) second act is mostly Ginger leaving one bloody mess after another everywhere she goes, with Brigitte following and trying to cover things up.
From a storytelling perspective, this is a really smart way to frame the story. Werewolf narratives, especially in cinema, tend to suffer tremendously from featuring long portions of the story where the character is essentially unconscious, not in control of their actions. When a character’s not in control, they’re no longer an active participant in the plot, and that can really sap any story of its energy. But instead of the traditional structure, where an infected character undergoes full-body transformation each full moon, Ginger Snaps embraces a long, slow descent into animality. This allows for all sorts of thematic play, too. Some of this material is pretty broad, as with one scene in a school nurse’s office:
Ginger: “Okay, so, it’s all normal?”
Nurse: “Very. Expect it every 28 days, give or take, for the next 30 years.”
Ginger: “Ugh, great. Thanks.”
Brigitte: “Um, what about hair that wasn’t there before? And pain?”
Nurse: “Mmhm. Comes with the territory.”
But there’s also subtler things at play here. One example is the girls’ relationship with their mother, Pamela (Mimi Rogers). At first, Pamela is way too excited for the girls to finally get their first period–you really feel their embarrassment, although Pamela is really just happy to see them growing up. (Pamela’s idea of celebrating Ginger’s first period is to make the young girl’s favorite dessert, which happens to be strawberry shortcake. With big red chunks and dripping strawberry syrup.) But as Ginger’s changes continue (and start getting really, really troublesome–eating the neighbor’s dog troublesome), the girls work hard to shut their mother out, convinced that she can’t help them deal with what they’re going through. When Pamela finally discovers Ginger’s murders, though, her reaction suggests that underlying this suburban conformist was always a strong, independent woman willing to literally burn everything down for her kids. You kinda see where they get it from.
Or take Jason, the boy who was interested in Ginger. Suddenly she’s interested back, and there’s a great satirical puncturing of male braggadocio when Jason greets his friends after an encounter with Ginger in the backseat of his car. They ask him, concerned, “What happened to you?” as they stare at the bruises and cuts Jason sports in the aftermath of rough sex with a girl bearing fangs and claws. “Ginger Fitzgerald rocked my world,” he grins, not knowing he’s already infected. Meanwhile, Ginger tells Brigitte about her first sexual experience, and the world’s cruel double standards:
Ginger: “It wasn’t at all like I thought it would be. There was just all this squirming and squealing… and then he’s done. And you’re like, ‘Oh.’ …Jason’s probably out there telling everyone what a freak I am.”
Brigitte: “We’ll say the same thing about him.”
Ginger: “It doesn’t work like that. I mean, he got laid. I’m just a lay. He’s a hero, and I’m just a lay, a freak, mutant lay.”
The men in this movie aren’t uniformly terrible, although Ginger certainly feels that way–most of her rage is directed toward other men, particularly men she feels are aiming sexual attention at her sister, like some kind of horror movie version of The Catcher in the Rye. But this is still definitely a women’s movie; the girls’ perspective is primary, and even the nicest male character, drug dealer Sam, is really only there for exposition. I was interested in seeing him escape the finale alive, but by the time Brigitte is lapping his blood off her fingers, it’s clear that she has other priorities.
All the puns and murders aside, the heart of the movie is the relationship between these two girls. We learn in the nurse’s office that Ginger is 16 and Brigitte is a year younger, and that gulf in development only widens as Ginger gets her period, has sex for the first time, eats her first dog, murders her first few victims, etc. Although part of the emotional distance between them is Ginger being under the influence of the werewolf disease, it’s clear that she was at least somewhat this person all along–more cynical, more angry, less happy. Brigitte is, if less courageous, also more practical and kind; and she’s not a stupid girl, either. She sees clearly what’s happening to the two of them, how they’re drifting apart, and that scares her more than anything. As the bodies pile up, Brigitte tells Ginger that the two of them will run away together, a protestation that grows increasingly desperate as she can’t help but see it for a lie.
The finale brings all of this to a head. Ginger, now almost fully transformed into a vicious beast of fangs and melted flesh, stalks Sam and Brigitte through the girls’ home. Brigitte has spent the last few sequences trying to get Ginger to take the cure, an injection of Sam’s monkshood–not only because Ginger’s physical transformations are clearly leading nowhere good, but also because Brigitte is trying to preserve the closeness of their sisterhood by using a medical solution to metaphorically bring Ginger back from adolescence into childhood. When this tactic doesn’t work, Brigitte tries to go the other way. She takes Ginger’s disease through a renewal of their girlhood blood pact, promising to be together, dead or alive, and when she finds Sam lying bleeding on the floor of their house, she tries to follow Ginger into the older girl’s madness, licking the boy’s blood from her hand. It’s an extraordinary moment that calls to mind the off-the-charts insanity at the end of Cronenberg’s The Brood, where a mother licks the blood off her newborn child like an animal; both images connect blood, reproduction, and female emotional bonds in a single repulsive act.
Right after Brigitte fails to keep down Sam’s blood, she makes her way into the basement bedroom where the girls grew up together, holding a kitchen knife in one hand and the monkshood needle in the other, as if to dramatize her choice: kill or cure? But she made that choice kneeling next to Sam’s body, vomiting blood onto the floor. She can’t follow Ginger into an adulthood this violent, this destructive, this sad. Before all this started, Ginger told Brigitte that their suicides would be the ultimate “fuck you” to everyone around them–no cliche, but an act that would leave everyone in awe. But Brigitte can’t honor the pact. “I’m not dying in this room with you,” she shouts at her snarling sister. And the only one who bears witness to Ginger’s death is her. Bloody, infected, crying, filled with loss, Brigitte embraces her sister’s strange, dying body. There’s no awe here. Just the reality that growing up changes everybody. Not necessarily in the same way. But only the dead die young.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because hopefully our first woman president doesn’t turn out to be a werewolf. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.