The golden age of horror: Ginger Snaps (2001)

Chris: During our horror movie gab-fest last year, it’s entirely possible that either Tom or I or both of us mentioned that American Werewolf in London was the last non-awful werewolf movie ever made. Some readers took us to task in the comments section, with more than a few folks pointing out that this film from future Orphan Black co-creator John Fawcett proved us wrong and was completely worth seeing. Yeah right. A Canadian werewolf movie about outcast high school goth girls. That sounds…well, actually, that sounds like it could be pretty damned good.

After the jump, Michael J. Fox and Jason Bateman need not apply.

Barac: The werewolf myth has some pretty natural metaphorical connections: the menstrual cycle, the transition from childhood into the tumultuous years of adolescence, being taken over by something weird and other. It’s subtext in a lot of werewolf movies, which tend to be more concerned with painful transformation sequences and the carnage wrought by the hunting lycanthrope (or lycanthropes). It’s pretty much the text in Ginger Snaps, or at least a big part of it, though it doesn’t particularly stint on mayhem and body-warping transformations either. It’s sufficiently unsubtle about the parallels it’s drawing that it took me out of the film frequently, and a few scenes are a little “really, guys?” (For instance, the biology class where they watch a little film about how viruses infect you, or the inadvertently infected boy whose primary physical symptom seems to be a really bad case of acne.)

Chris: So many werewolf movies use the aggressive hormonal changes that come over young men in puberty as their jumping off point. Even so and with the heavy hand that Barac mentions, I still spent the first half of the film in wonderment that no one had thought to switch the genders before. It’s so stupidly obvious that the changes that young women undergo lend themselves every bit as well–if not better–to a good werewolf story. I think it is to Fawcett’s credit that what we end up with here is a movie that feels equally influenced by David Cronenberg’s body dysmorphia gross-outs and John Hughes’s misfit adolescent girls coming-of-age in suburbia tales.

Barac: The way they handled lycanthropy here was certainly different from the traditional “shifting on the full moon and nothing will kill you but silver” take, and I think probably one of the strengths of the script. It makes for a slower, more devastating build and lets the sisterly relationship between the two leads drag the protagonist, Brigitte, further and further down roads she might never have contemplated in a different scenario. It also allows them to soft-pedal a traditional weakness of the werewolf movie: special effects. Let’s face it, it’s really tough to put a wolf-human hybrid on screen with any sort of verisimilitude, and it often looks so goofy that there’s nowhere near the required level of menace. Ginger Snaps doesn’t completely manage to avoid this pitfall, but it gets to spend much of the movie with just some tooth and nail prosthetics (and an occasional tail shot), which is much more easily done.

Chris: It is interesting to note how little Fawcett cares about exposition here, isn’t it? Not only does he pretty much chuck the traditional hoary werewolf tropes, but he’s also not really interested in exploring where the original wolf came from or stuff of that nature. I think that works to the movie’s great advantage. The screenplay here has so many smart decisions going on that I didn’t really want it to get all expository. I just wanted to see what happened next.

Barac: I tend to agree that the movie benefited from not focusing on things like that (or Sam’s actual motivations, etc). If only it had been similarly willing to trust the audience to get the metaphors it was invoking. Where the movie worked for me best, I think, is in that central relationship between sisters. I was a little put off by their morbid and antisocial tendencies early on, but it makes it pretty clear that as far as they’re concerned they only really have each other, and it makes it really heartbreaking when this uncontrollable force appears and does its level best to push them apart. That ending especially is brutal.

Chris: Oh man, I absolutely loved the sisters and their relationship! Early on when they’re shooting their slides or still lifes (dead lifes?) to shock their classmates, it’s all so morbidly bizarre that it ends up feeling very real. I think it’s also fairly clear that even before the attack that they’re starting to grow apart. Ginger doesn’t seem to mind the attention of boys nearly as much as she hints at. Brigitte isn’t so sure she’s buying into their whole goofy death pact idea anymore. Both Emily Perkins and Katherine Isabell handle their lead roles with the right mix of humor and gravitas. I actually found myself wondering if Aubrey Plaza didn’t study Perkins’ eye-rolling, death haggish performance here to get an idea for how to play April Ludgate in the first few seasons of Parks & Rec. I bought into it all completely.

Barac: It’s really the heart of the film, as far as I can tell. It’s not a conventionally scary movie, I don’t think. It’s too fond of absurdity and although there are a couple of tense sequences as things get deeper into the movie, even then they don’t really have the sort of mood and framing that would really make them prey on my nerves. But there’s plenty of horror in the way that relationship frays and falls apart.

A few other things I liked: for a lot of the film it’s not especially clear where this is taking place, other than a mundane sort of town or suburb. And then they put up a missing poster in both English and French, and it’s like “Oh! This is Canada.” The mother is well-meaning but clueless, as so often happens in movies about teenagers, but she’s, ah, unusually supportive when the bodies start turning up. Guidance counselor logic: “I mean, a temper like that is inexcusable, barring substantial extenuating circumstances.”

Chris: I agree, it really is a very droll movie, beyond some of the obvious satire on suburban life. I don’t know why, but the two best werewolf movies I’ve seen are often as funny as they are frightening. Something about this legend clearly lends itself well to humor. I couldn’t help but think of the recent anti-feminism flap going around certain circles during the makeout scene with Ginger in the car. It had me almost cheering out of sheer delight (“YOU lie back and relax.”) The way an unfortunate kitchen accident occurs and is dealt with later on is ghoulishly hilarious. What’s so excellent about that last sequence is how well it shows off the tautness of this script. The way the sisters get around discovery is set up earlier in the film without us realizing. Meanwhile, the need to dispose of a body quickly helps set up important sequences later in the film. That the movie is able to turn so many important plot wheels invisibly and entertainingly is something sadly rare in horror films.

(Ginger Snaps is available to stream for Hulu Plus members, and is also available to rent or buy digitally through the usual sources.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)