Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Review Double Feature: Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2003) and Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004)

It isn't October without a horror double feature. This time, it's the second and third Ginger Snaps movies.

Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2003)

Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, some language and drug use

Score: 3 out of 5

It's hard to find a horror sequel that's as good as the original. Only a few franchises have pulled it off, and most of them were following on a first film that wasn't the greatest thing ever; A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Scream 2 are among the few that managed to live up to stone-cold classic predecessors. The Ginger Snaps series is part of that 90% of horror franchises that has trouble escaping the shadow of the first installment. Its second installment mostly lacks the satirical, darkly comedic edge that made the first film such a standout compared to its teen horror peers, and the plot and themes aren't as tightly-woven as they were before. That said, a good werewolf movie is a good werewolf movie, and this film has solid scares, interesting characters, and great special effects going for it. If you liked the first movie, or if you're into monster movies in general, this is a fun one to watch.

That said, it is highly recommended that you watch the original before this one, because it follows on directly from that movie's ending. (So, spoiler warning.)

After the events of the first film, Brigitte Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins) has dropped out of school and run away from home, presumably knowing that there'd be no way in hell she could explain the disappearance of her sister Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and a number of her classmates and school faculty members. Now, she's living in a seedy motel, injecting herself with monkshood to help keep her werewolf transformation at bay. Much as the first film used lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty, this one is similarly on-the-nose about its subject matter -- in this case, addiction, with Brigitte's struggles to get her next dose of monkshood bearing many similarities to a junkie's quest for her next fix. The fact that the monkshood is only a temporary measure, merely slowing Brigitte's transformation rather than truly keeping her human, reflects the tolerance that addicts build to their drug of choice, constantly requiring greater doses for their next high. And indeed, when she's discovered face down in a snow bank one night, she wakes up in a hospital's rehab clinic given the fact that, in her strung-out state and with the paraphernalia she has on her, she quite clearly resembles a drug fiend -- even if they can't figure out just why she's shooting up monkshood, of all things. There, she meets and interacts with a whole host of colorful characters, including the clinic's director Alice, an orderly named Tyler who supplies drugs to the girls in rehab in exchange for sex, and a weird, nerdy girl known only as Ghost (Tatiana Maslany) who's been living at the hospital because her legal guardian, her badly-burned grandmother, is there and she has no other relatives who can take her in -- and all the while, she's haunted by memories of Ginger, constantly telling her to stop fighting and embrace the beast within. Brigitte is desperate to escape and regain access to her supply of monkshood, not only because her transformation is getting worse, but because there's also another werewolf who's been stalking her, and may well threaten the hospital's inhabitants. Together with Ghost, who has managed to figure out that Brigitte is afflicted with "the curse", she hatches a plan to escape, but on the outside, she starts to realize that werewolves aren't the only threat out there.

In general terms, the story here isn't as well put-together as it was in the last film. While the story of Brigitte's transformation and Ghost's interest in her do come together, the presence of another werewolf stalking Brigitte seems like it was just there to have a monster to lay down a body count in the middle part of the film. Many of this film's big plot turns, and its werewolf action, could've been accomplished the same way they were in the first film: by having the slowly-transforming Brigitte losing control (or is she?) and killing people, something that would also add more urgency to her quest to fight off her curse. The extra werewolf is never explained; while some fans have guessed that it was a fully-transformed Jason from the first film, having never figuring out how to slow the infection with monkshood, this is merely a fan theory that the film's own creators have shrugged at, and even so, any backstory the werewolf has never plays much of a role. Whereas Ginger's transformation in the first film posed a clear and present danger to everybody around her, Brigitte's transformation only really affects Brigitte. Given the amount of damage that drug use does not just to addicts, but to their sober families and friends, this was a pretty big missed opportunity to explore the lycanthropy-as-addiction metaphor the same way the first film used "the curse" to satirize puberty. It's handled mostly on a surface level, with little in the way of any deeper meaning. The fact that so much of the second half of the film was focused on the werewolf outside also produced another missed opportunity in light of the big twist (which I won't spoil), the chance to build a slow-burn, cabin-fever thriller around Brigitte, Ghost, and Tyler, as we're unsure of which of them, if any, we can trust.

Then again, given that this film mostly delivers on the good old-fashioned monster movie that it actually is, I'll forgive it for its deficiencies in the writing department. The special effects for both the gore and the werewolves are a big step up from the original film, where they had to hide the wolf for most of its big scenes at the end. The famed KNB effects team did the job here, and their work is appropriately grisly as the werewolf's victims spray blood everywhere and Brigitte's transformation renders her increasingly inhuman by the end. The direction is solid and goes a long way to backing up the effects, showing them off in just the right quantities to make you squirm while also crafting a number of creative shots that help to establish and build plenty of tension beforehand. I felt the chill in the air with how the film exploits its winter setting; it made me want to bundle up. The black comedy of the first film is toned down here in favor of a more straightforward horror film, though that's not to say there aren't still some great moments that combine the two, such as Brigitte's masturbatory fantasy of eating a man alive (ending on a punchline that makes for a great callback to the first film's puberty metaphor) and one of the disposable teens in the clinic thinking that the werewolf she just saw in the shadows was a drug-induced hallucination before getting mauled.

On the acting front, Emily Perkins returns as Brigitte and once more does a fine job, both looking the part of somebody who's been through hell and making it clear in her delivery (don't force her to smile). The fact that she convinced the new director to let her wear more form-fitting T-shirts and tank tops instead of the burly jackets she had in the first film also lends her a fierce, sexy edge. Once again, though, she's outshone by a co-star, in this case a young Tatiana Maslany as Ghost. These days, anybody who's seen Orphan Black, the show that just won Maslany an Emmy, knows that she is a phenomenal actress, but this movie proves that she's been damn good for a very long time. Ghost is just the right amount of off-kilter and weird with her interests and demeanor to make you question precisely what her deal is, without her turning into a caricature of a creepy kid who enters Wednesday Addams territory, even if the film kind of telegraphs the big reveal a bit too much. She still feels like a normal teenage girl, one who's all too human and relatable, making it that much more shocking when we find out what she's actually up to. (If I were to describe Maslany's performance in Orphan Black terms, it would be a high school-aged cross between Cosima and Helena.) Maslany creates a really good character here, one who, without spoiling anything, makes me wish that much harder that the second half of the film had kept the focus on Brigitte's attempts to stall her transformation instead of shifting it to the big bad wolf outside, because in light of the twist, it would've elevated her character to a great one. Eric Johnson's Tyler was sleazy and obnoxious in just the right measure as a crooked drug dealer on the inside, one who doesn't give a damn about the people he's literally and figuratively screwing except insofar as they can pleasure him. Katharine Isabelle felt wasted, however, in what amounts to a glorified cameo as Ginger's ghost. I get that it's hard to have a Ginger Snaps movie without Ginger, but Isabelle has precious little to do beyond serve as a voice in Brigitte's head, the only real moment she gets being when she gives Brigitte an opportunity to drop a great one-liner. Again, it's the same problem I had with the second half of the story: more focus on Brigitte, please, and less on the other monster! Alice, the director of the clinic who's herself a recovering addict, is also a character I would've liked to see more of a focus on, as she was quite interesting yet only showed up in the first act and again at the end.

The Bottom Line:

This is a movie that could've been a lot better than it was, but as it stands, it's a solid werewolf movie that packs plenty of bite behind its bark. It may not be as smart as the original, but it still follows in its footsteps well enough.


And now, for the prequel...

Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004)

Rated R for violence and some language

Score: 2 out of 5

If there are weirder directions for a horror franchise to go in than the third and final installment of the Ginger Snaps series, I'd like to hear them. A Nightmare on Elm Street had Freddy Krueger invading the "real world" and attacking the franchise's creators and actors. Numerous franchises, from Friday the 13th to Hellraiser, have taken their villains to outer space, to the point where it's become a cliche. Leprechaun not only went to space, it also went to the ghetto -- twice. But what Ginger Snaps did was run with an absurdly specific idea that seems almost designed to wear its Canadian-ness on its toque. You have to admire the audacity: make a prequel that sends Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald back in time to a 19th century trading fort in the Canadian wilderness, played by the same actresses and bearing the same names and similar anachronistic personalities, and act like nothing unusual is happening here.

Sadly, an interesting setup, together with some admittedly well-done gore effects and an entertaining finale, are about all that this film has going for it. The plot is a poorly thought-out mess, the characters are one-note, their motivations are vague and often shifting, and there are quite a few leaps in logic. Worst of all, though, it is just not that scary or fun. Given that this film and its predecessor were shot back-to-back, it's clear that they used up whatever ideas they had during the process of writing the second film, because this mostly feels like a cash-in designed to milk a franchise that, honestly, didn't really need more than one sequel.

In this version of the story, the year is 1815, and Ginger and Brigitte (Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins) are now the daughters of a trader, who were traveling with him when their boat crashed and he drowned. Lost in the woods, and with Brigitte injured by a bear trap, the two are rescued by a mysterious native hunter and are brought to Fort Bailey, a trading fort deep in the wilderness whose last scheduled shipment of supplies to get the inhabitants through the winter was supposed to arrive two months ago. Worse, as Ginger and Brigitte soon learn, the place is under siege by werewolves, who have the dwindling garrison on edge and suspicious of any outsiders, especially these two young women who showed up out of nowhere. The real problem, however, is already on the inside, as the fort's commander Wallace Rowlands is covering up the fact that his son Geoffrey, rather than having been killed by werewolves, was in fact infected with "the curse", and has been locked up in a closet while he slowly transforms into a werewolf -- as Ginger learns the hard way when she hears Geoffrey, goes to investigate, and gets bitten for her trouble. As the situation in the fort deteriorates, Ginger and Brigitte plot to escape and, hopefully, find a way to turn back the curse.

And here's where this film lost me. At the beginning of the film, an old native seer tells Ginger and Brigitte that they must "kill the boy, or one sister will kill the other". The way it plays out, we're led to believe that, by killing the werewolf Geoffrey, Ginger can cut off the curse and remain human. Here's the problem, though: this film is a prequel, it obeys the same werewolf "rules" laid out by the last two films, and if you've seen those, you know that killing Ginger didn't spare Brigitte from her werewolf infection. The reveal about halfway through that the seer was saying that they had to kill the boy before he bit one of them was among the most obvious twists I've seen in a long while. The dramatic tension of Ginger and Brigitte's initial search for a cure is sucked right out of the film, since we, the viewers, know right away that it's not gonna work. After that, we learn of some hare-brained prophecy of "the red and the black", two sisters (the redheaded Ginger and the black-haired Brigitte) whose actions will decide the future of the werewolf curse upon these lands. Erm, last I checked, a major plot thread involved the fort being under siege by a massive horde of werewolves. How one sister's decision to either kill the other or join her as a werewolf is supposed to decide the future of all of the other wolfmen that are already out there is never explained beyond "just so".

That just leaves the characters to help carry the film for its first two acts, and unfortunately, they're barely any better. Not one of the supporting players at the fort is interesting, each of them defined by a single personality trait that's never explored or built upon. The Indian hunter (he never gets a proper name) is a badass woodsman who exists to help deliver exposition and kick werewolf ass, yet he is somehow unable to prevent a partially-transformed Ginger from ripping out the throat of the seer (implied to be his mother) right in front of him. The reverend immediately treats the sisters with suspicion before there is any reason to do so, and even after it turns out that the real enemy was inside the fort the whole time. The fort commander Wallace is hiding his werewolf son inside the fort, and is willing to kill to protect his secret, though given how many times Geoffrey was able to escape whatever bonds were holding him, I had trouble figuring out why it took so long for everyone else to realize what Wallace was hiding. There's also some cannon fodder who exist strictly to get either mauled to death by werewolves or put down when they get infected; in that category, ironically, is one of the only interesting supporting characters, the doctor who uses leeches to help determine if a wound is a werewolf bite versus a mundane injury (short version: when the leeches suck blood from an infectee, they turn into big, ugly were-leeches that make for a great effects gag). And I was constantly wondering why none of them took the time to patch up a massive hole in the fort's wall that a werewolf uses to sneak in early on and which Ginger and Brigitte use to sneak out later, perhaps by using some of the furniture that lined the inside of the buildings. I felt no urgency in their siege situation (we're told they're running low on supplies, but it never feels like it), and with none of them acting like normal human beings, I couldn't be bothered to care about any of them.

Only Ginger and Brigitte themselves were interesting, and even then, that had more to do with my continued affection for them from the first two films than anything. Katharine Isabelle's performance especially is all over the place. She's at her best when she's her usual snarky Ginger self, making remarks like "these guys are fucked" when she and Brigitte are finally alone together in their room. Her one-liners were a much-needed reprieve from the dour dullness of most of the first two acts of the film, initially making me hope that this film would retain some of the comedic edge of the first two. That hope sadly proved short-lived, however, because in other scenes, Isabelle seems like she's bored and has simply clocked out, her emotional scenes falling flat. Emily Perkins is more consistent as Brigitte, in that her performance is just "there"; she never feels like she fell asleep on the job, but she never excels like she did in the prior films. With both of them, it felt like their only reason for returning was because somebody showed them a big stack of loonies. (My description of Perkins' performance applies to just about everyone in the film, by the way; none of them were bad, but none were all that great either.) The lackluster performances mean that the chemistry between Ginger and Brigitte, which had been such a major element of what made the first film work so well, is lacking here, taking with it what should've been the emotional core of the movie.

The reason I can't bring myself to hate this film is because of its technical quality pulling it across the finish line in the end. KNB once again did the special effects, and they took every opportunity to show them off, with a lot of great shots of werewolves running wild and tearing people apart. It's especially apparent during the gonzo finale, where the werewolves launch their final assault on the fort. Isabelle suddenly feels alive and interested in the material as she transforms into Ginger, Khalessi of the Werewolves, and the gore is ramped up as wolves tear men to pieces while they fight back with everything they can get their hands on. I watched the finale wishing that the rest of the film had been this awesome, not the dull slog that it was, punctuated by only a few worthwhile moments of action. Sure, all of the characters other than Ginger and Brigitte are just behaving randomly at this point, but by embracing the ridiculousness of it all, this film finally grabbed my interest.

The Bottom Line:

Plentiful gore and a fun ending can't make up for dumb writing and unenthused performances. Ginger Snaps never needed to become a franchise in the first place, and the fact that the well ran dry after only three movies indicates why. Unless you're a hardcore fan of the series, just stick to the first two films.

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