"Out by sixteen or dead in the scene, but together forever."
That's the blood oath between mousy Brigid (Emily Perkins) and caustic Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) in 2000's Ginger Snaps (Scream! Factory.) The Fitzgerald sisters are the gleeful dissidents in the small Canadian town of Bailey Downs, "a place full of dead ends," drawls Brigid with mournful spite, where street hockey and underage smoking are the order of the day-after-day-after-day, They rebel against the mundane order of things by staging murders and mayhem for Polaroid posterity. Their Goreyseque fantasies of drowning, severance, garden tool impalation, and a terrible dose of freezer burn have little bearing on the realities that face them after, one dark night, the pair are attacked by something furry and fanged. Something that has been eating dogs leaving a thick layer of gruesome across the streets.
This isn't your average teen wolf. To begin with, the beast's attack on Ginger is triggered when it picks up the scent of her menstrual blood. Lycanthropy and puberty are intertwined in the narrative, as Ginger starts to change and -really- change. Most teen girls have to contend with training bras, not hiding a tail. There's a depth and darkness as the sisters grow apart, and their preteen fixation on all things dark and twisted is faced with a visceral reality.
It's the sisters that make this so memorable. Isabelle and Perkins have that easy unease that only siblings can share, and their tragedy is palpable. The pair are well beyond their narrative age (Isabelle was 18 going on 15, while the 23 year old Perkins somehow was cast as her younger sister) and their unity turning into antagonism is the real narrative driver. When Brigid seeks a cure for her sister's new ravenous ways, Ginger just can't work out why her best friend resents her new-found maturity.
In a sign of its belated significance, Scream! has given Ginger Snaps the kind of loaded release it truly deserves, including a half hour discussion by film critics and theorists about its position in female body horror, and puberty terrors in particular. Yet this film isn't about women becoming monsters when they hit puberty – no more than it is about future date rapist Jason (Jesse Moss) becoming a ravenous beast. It's about what happens between sisters when one matures first.
Director James Fawcett and scriter Karen Walton load up with daring decisions, starting but not ending with the casting. From the subversive tone to the radical redesign of the four-legged werewolf, they kicked a moribund genre hard in the ass (don't forget, this was only three years after the heinous An American Werewolf in Paris.) Most importantly, they evolve beyond the weretroubles of Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man, or Oliver Reed in The Curse of the Werewolf, but understand that this is a tragedy. The big difference here is that gothic arches have been replaced by suburban cul-de-sacs.
Beloved but still little known, why didn't Ginger Snaps take a bigger first bite? As Fawcett notes in the fabulous accompanying retrospective documentary Blood, Teeth and Fur, the only American distributor interested in a theatrical release - Fox Searchlight - wanted to spay his R-rated horror, and turn it into a PG crowd-pleaser (one wonders exactly what film they thought they were buying.) He eschewed crippling his vision just for commercial success. In fact, it was one well-placed New York Times review that saved it from VHS ignominy.
Yet a decade and a half later, Ginger Snaps stands as a landmark in genre cinema. It put two female, outsider, goth protagonists front and center, and dealt even more pointedly with the interplay of menstrual and moon cycles than Neil Jordan and Angela Carter did with 1984's The Company of Wolves. It made Isabelle a horror star, with headturning roles in Hannibal, Being Human, and of course American Mary on her resume. Now Fawcett and Walton are reunited on the equally femmecentric Canadian clone Sfer Orphan Black.
It was also a turning point in Canadian horror. The 1980s had seen a slew of Canucksploitation classics like Black Christmas, Prom Night, and Deadly Eyes, before the nation's film professionals all started working on runaway American TV productions, relocating in search of generous tax incentives. But all that talent, much of which paid some bills on the set of The X-Files, generated a new wave of Canadian cerebral terror. Now our neighbors to the north are producing brainmelters like Pontypool and Beyond the Black Rainbow, and directors like the Soska Twins (American Mary, See No Evil 2) and Vincenzo Natali (Cube.) (This was also the last storyboarding gig for Natali, Haunter, Splice, before revisiting lycanthropy on Hemlock Grove, and joining Isabelle on the set of Hannibal.) Not that these films would not have happened without Ginger Snaps, but its impact is, at last, undeniable.
Ginger Snaps (Scream! Factory) is out now on Blu-ray/DVD combo.
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