Thursday, August 14, 2014

Review: Ginger Snaps (2000)

Ginger Snaps (2000)



As in almost any genre, many of the greatest horror movies are the ones that are about a bit more than just thrills and chills. Dawn of the Dead used zombies as a metaphor for consumerism. Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives (both from the same writer, Ira Levin) were about women losing control of their lives as others take that control from them. The real horror in Carrie was not the title character's psychic powers, but rather, the relentless bullying she endured daily. Scream was Generation X's response to the slasher films of the '80s and what they represented. And this film, Ginger Snaps, is about puberty. In it, Ginger Fitzgerald (Katharine Isabelle), a moody goth girl approaching sixteen, is bitten by a werewolf, causing her body to start undergoing changes that she and her equally weird sister Brigitte (Emily Perkins) have no idea how to cope with. By the next full moon, Ginger's transformation will be complete, causing Brigitte to seek the help of the school's drug dealer Sam (Kris Lemche) to try and reverse it with some chemical concoction.

The film is on the nose with its metaphors, with many discussions between the sisters, especially in the first half of the film, that could easily be about puberty or werewolves depending on the context. Ginger's changes manifest in (among other things) an increased sexual assertiveness and hair in strange places, she has sex with a guy and infects him with lycanthropy, she undergoes frequent cramps and mood swings, and the onset of her transformation takes roughly the same time as her menstrual cycle. Everybody who remembers their adolescence remembers how their body began doing strange things that they didn't understand, and this film mines a lot from this awkwardness and the protagonists' quest to make sense of it. The real horror comes not from how Ginger's changes cause her to start eating the neighbors' dogs and eventually her classmates (though this film is more than bloody enough to sate the gorehounds), but from the shifts in her personality that these changes are triggering, how she's turning into a completely different person that Brigitte can no longer recognize as the sister she grew up with.

If that's not your thing, then know that this film is also hilarious on top of it. It is as much a black comedy as it is a straight horror movie, making for a much better "Scream with werewolves" than Wes Craven's own attempt at such, Cursed. The guidance counselor offers the girls meaningless advice recited from a script, their mother Pamela (Mimi Rogers) is excited that her little girl is becoming a woman in ignorance of what's really happening, and Ginger treats the prospect of spewing blood once a month for the next thirty years as yet one more reason to kill herself. Writers John Fawcett (who also directed) and Karen Walton showcase a great sense of comic timing with such scenes, and are just as skilled at capturing life in the protagonists' suburban Ontario home. If you're a fan of Orphan Black (which Fawcett co-created), you'll immediately recognize his work here, between the character interactions and the fact that the setting feels exactly like the messed-up suburbia that Alison Hendrix lives in and has to put up with (and if some of the shout-outs that that show gives to this movie are any indication, it may well be).

They couldn't have done it without the two actors playing Ginger and Brigitte, Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins. Isabelle in particular shines so bright that she risks overshadowing just about everybody around her; I already spoke at length about her acting in my review of American Mary, but this gives me another golden opportunity to lavish praise on someone who I feel is one of the best "scream queens" of her generation. Her Ginger is amazing to watch, highly emotional and prone to quick changes in temperament, and slowly shifting from a girl who's into the morbid (she and Brigitte put together a collage of gruesome memento mori self-portraits for a class presentation) but is still otherwise sane into a flat-out monster as her infection progresses. Isabelle is such an inferno in this film that Emily Perkins' Brigitte felt tiny and meek next to her, an interaction that worked perfectly in informing the two girls' relationship. Perkins played her character more subtly than Isabelle did, to the point where I felt her acting was wooden initially, but as the film progressed she gave Brigitte just as many layers and as much growth as Isabelle did Ginger. The most important part was that the two have great chemistry together, allowing me to buy into the fact that they were sisters from start to finish. They care for each other deeply, but Brigitte is scared for her life over what puberty... sorry, lycanthropy is turning Ginger into, while Ginger can't stand to have anyone control her anymore, much less her little sister. Not to be left out is Kris Lemche as Sam, who immediately reminded me of a number of people I knew growing up, and he kept it up as the film went on; one of his lines in particular, from the dialogue to his delivery of it, sounded precisely like what I'd imagine my brother saying in that exact situation. Even Mimi Rogers, in a small role as the sisters' mother Pamela, gives depth to her character as she slowly came to realize, in a roundabout way, that something is seriously wrong with Ginger.

Really, the only weak link in the cast was the guy who played Jason, a classmate that Ginger has sex with and infects with "the curse", in a subplot that I felt dragged. While the idea was interesting, Jason was a fairly one-note character and his performance had me laughing for reasons completely separate from this film's intentional comedy, ruining what could've been a very interesting side-story. Furthermore, the film eventually does have to end, and it was in the third act where the film took a slight dip from "amazing" to just "pretty good". The final confrontation between Brigitte and a wolfed-out Ginger is a tense and scary scene, the decision to keep Ginger-wolf in the shadows most of the time helping to both cover up the fairly low-budget effects work (when you do see it in full form, it's passable but not that impressive) and keep the viewer guessing as to when and where it will strike next. However, there were a few scenes before it that could've been snipped in the interest of time and pacing, as before the climax commenced and gave it a jolt of adrenaline, the film felt like it was starting to run on fumes compared to the stellar first two acts.

Score: 4 out of 5

While a bit shy of perfection, Ginger Snaps is still an outstanding, resonant teen horror movie with a darkly comic undercurrent, smart writing, two excellent lead performances, and real scares that I give my highest recommendation.

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