Director: John Fawcett
Stars: Katherine Isabelle, Emily Perkins, Jesse Moss
When it comes to teen horrors that writhe exquisitely in the perverse joys of the macabre, few come close to touching John Fawcett’s turn-of-the-millennium offering Ginger Snaps. Conceived in partnership with Karen Walton and brought to life from her acidic script (gleefully prefiguring the work of Diablo Cody), this Canadian upstart was and remains one of the defining depictions of the high school outsider. For those of us who skulked in hoodies, smoked behind bike sheds or winced at the extroverted couplings of the ‘popular kids’, Ginger Snaps was The One. And, in terms of horror cinema that explodes the adolescent terrors of menstruation, its only true rival is de Palma’s Carrie.
Personally speaking, it bests it.
Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) are morbidly fixated sisters in the nowheresville of Bailey Downs. Over the film’s credits we witness just how fixated, as we’re treated to the makings of their latest school project; a series of staged photographs in which they imagine their own violent deaths. In keeping with the death-pact the two swore at eight years old, they envisage themselves torn open by lawnmowers, impaled on white picket fences or hanging from a noose in the garage. Their teacher is, unsurprisingly, horrified.
Both girls are three years overdue on getting their first periods. Perhaps in connection with this they are disgusted by the horny aspirations of their peers and have defined their own ‘otherness’ accordingly. Their dark clothes, piercings, slouched shoulders and aforementioned predilection for the gruesome mark them out as quasi-Goths, but Fawcett frames their jaded worldview as greatly sympathetic. Ginger Snaps delights in its cynicism, depicting a North American suburbia of banal domesticity and corporate-approved sexual obsession.
One night, Ginger is bitten by a werewolf. Soon after she starts finding hair growing where there wasn’t hair before, and an emerging, insatiable appetite for raw meat. The event coincides with Ginger’s first period. The lycanthrope myth of transformation is ripe as metaphor for the changes of adolescence and particularly young womanhood, but Ginger Snaps widens its viewpoint to a greater bandwidth of teenage melodramas. Ginger’s period also arrives just as she starts drawing attention from the high school boys. These developments coax Ginger into the mainstream fold, and in turn begin driving a rift between her and Brigitte.
Brigitte – a year ahead in school but far behind in personal growth – feels isolated by Ginger’s newfound experimentation and sexual viability. Walton’s script and Fawcett’s film ache with her as she selfishly wishes for her sister’s changes to stop; for their former outsider status to return. In the first and second acts of the film we’re asked to imagine her sadness and also her jealousy. Puberty ravages its way through schools at a varying pace. Part of growing up and existing in those years is feeling the suspicion that your own normal rate of change is anything but. Such growing pains are often the spotlight of the teen movie, but rarely is the anguish conjured with such resonance.
For Ginger, her awakening manifests in a series of sexual aggressions in which she plays the dominant party. On the backseat of a parked car, her date is moved to ask “Who’s the guy here?” as she straddles him. She devours him with her newfound womanly confidence. The film then humorously translates this act into horror quotation marks; we next find Ginger retching up blood over a toilet having feasted on one of the neighbourhood dogs. One appetite equates to another.
Through this the film also addresses another teenage paranoia; the perils of unprotected sex. Ginger passes on her newfound supernatural tendencies through the casual sex she has with Jason (Jesse Moss), reconfiguring the werewolf myth as a more pointed riff on the prevalence of STDs among the young.
Ginger Snaps also works as a trans metaphor. Ginger embraces her changes. Her newfound confidence can be seen as a measure of how she has ‘found’ herself. Brigitte examines Ginger while she sleeps face down; her ass protruding from the sheets. Brigitte is freaked out to find a small protrusion growing at the small of her sister’s back; a prehensile tail that could readily be interpreted as a measure of female-to-male wish fulfillment. Jason’s comment in the car takes on a more loaded significance with this reading in mind (as does the arrival of Ginger’s chest hair). Ultimately, the film comes to view these changes/evolutions as monstrous, which makes the reading a little problematic, but only within the confines of an indoctrinated, repressed and conservative society.
The two leads are excellent. Perkins takes the lead credit, but it is Isabelle who became iconic thanks to Snaps. Her Ginger is easily one of the highlights of the late ’90s/early ’00s cycle of North American horror films, and led to notable genre character work in the years following (including some eye-catching work on Freddy vs Jason) before another pair of iconic Canadian sisters – the Soska twins – sought her out for the lead in 2012’s incredible feminist horror American Mary. Between these appearances and some magnetic TV work, Isabelle has become a cult favourite, especially when she mixes confident sexuality with deadly intent. And while Perkins hasn’t quite achieved the same level of recognition, her work here ensures she will never be overlooked or forgotten. The horror community will always love her*.
Looking back on the film, Ginger Snaps feels as though it landed ahead of its time. Katt Shea’s underrated The Rage: Carrie 2 may have appeared a year earlier, but in general the time period wasn’t busy with strong female leads or intelligent explorations of particularly feminine concerns. The aforementioned Soska Sisters helped normalise such stories getting bankrolled, but not for another decade, and we’re only now really seeing this come to fruition as the number of female filmmakers grappling the genre seems to be booming with some wonderful, varied results. One wonders how many of the women getting their shot now would cite Ginger Snaps as a formative experience? John Fawcett directs the piece with aplomb, but it feels as though its ownership is as much, if not more characterised by Karen Walton’s script and the vivid characters given life and credence by, Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins.
And even setting aside the film’s qualifications as a feminist piece, Ginger Snaps earns its place in the pantheon of great horror films. Its story is dark and twisted, inventive and satirical. Fawcett ensures that his werewolf flick has the requisite blood and guts to sit comfortably beside the genre’s bad boys. Still, it feels annoyingly under-seen and also a little difficult to find sometimes. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, now would be an excellent time for a remaster and reissue, perhaps along with the sequels/prequels it spawned which, admittedly, I’ve not seen. A deluxe set from the likes of Second Sight, 88 Films or Arrow Video would be most welcome indeed. Then, now and always, this is one to look out for.
*By-the-by, in the year preceding Ginger Snaps, both Isabelle and Perkins made standout guest appearances in different episodes of the fifth season of The X-Files. Their respective episodes “Schizogeny” and “All Souls” are worth checking out. In a further act of strange coincidence, this was also the season that saw the actor playing their mother here, Mimi Rogers, debut on the show in her own recurring role as Agent Diana Fowley.