*. Is there anybody who doesn’t like this movie? And by that I really mean is there anybody who doesn’t like Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins)? I guess there are such curmudgeons out there, but (for once) I’m not among them.
*. According to director John Fawcett the two girls “began as caricatures [like] . . . sticky Edward Gorey girls . . . or a Tim Burton drawing.” But they both outgrow the role of Goth girls, becoming a unique clique of two: sharing a deep bond but playing well against each other. Ginger is sexy and aggressive, Brigitte withdrawn.
*. It’s important that we like Ginger and Brigitte because Ginger Snaps is a human werewolf movie. Which is a label I’ll try to explain.
*. We can think of werewolf movies as forming a continuum running from man (or woman) to wolf. At the far end we have the werewolf as pure creature. Think of the pack of wolves in Wolfen or the Beast of Gevaudan in Brotherhood of the Wolf. Or, if you don’t think those are real werewolf movies (and technically they aren’t), think of movies like Dog Soldiers or Howl, where we barely see the original beasts in human form.
*. At the human end of the continuum the focus is on the person who’s infected with the curse of lycanthropy. At the extreme edge of the continuum I’m drawing we have movies where it may not even be clear if the character is turning into a wolf or if it’s all in their head. Cat People, which isn’t a werewolf movie but very much fits the model, is a good example, or She-Wolf of London, where lycanthropy is just a psychological ruse being played on the heroine.
*. In the middle are most of the movies we think of as the classics of the genre. Lon Chaney Jr.’s Lawrence Talbot, done up in Jack Pierce’s original make-up, for example, is both a tragic human character and a monster.
*. The reason I bring all this up is because Ginger Snaps is definitely more of a human werewolf movie, meaning it’s more interested in the characters than it is in the monster. So it matters that the Fitzgerald girls are so likeable, and it’s less important that Ginger’s werewolf make-up is pretty awful and the werewolf itself moves awkwardly and looks more like a wild pig than a wolf. (On the plus side, at least it isn’t CGI.)
*. What’s so scary? A girl turning into a monster? Yes, but there are a lot of other scary things going on as well. I’ll number a few.
*. (1) Life in the ‘burbs with all its conformity and going nowhereism. On the DVD commentary writer Karen Walton puts the matter rather forcefully: “I hate suburbs, I think they’re awful places, I think they do awful things to people” Wow. That’s strong stuff. I mean, I don’t like suburbs either but I don’t know if I’d go that far.
*. (2) Sit-down family dinners. These have long been a horror film staple and here they are presented as almost a form of torture for the girls. Though I think this may just be part and parcel of a more general dislike contemporary horror movies seem to have for the traditional family.
*. (3) The fear of growing up and turning into your mother. Understandable, I suppose, when she’s made up like Mimi Rogers. Though it’s interesting that, as with Ginger and Brigitte, the stereotype characters in the movie (like Mimi Rogers’ Mom or the Cool Girl Trina at school) have an extra dimension in this movie, giving them a bit of reality. It may not seem like a lot, but it really helps give the movie a special texture.
*. (4) Menstruation, a.k.a. “the curse.” Yes, that can be scary. As are all of the teen rites of passage here, like boys, piercings, drugs, peer pressure, and even acne.
*. Further to this final point, I found it interesting listening to the commentaries that the link between lycanthropy and menstruation was apparently an afterthought, or at least not part of the original conception of the story (which was apparently more of something in the Cronenberg body-horror vein). Initially Fawcett and Walton hadn’t seen the connection with transformation of the body and adolescence. I think most people see this as being what the movie is all about, and indeed a number of critics found it too obvious and intrusive.
*. Is it a feminist horror film? I don’t think so. I think it’s just a horror film concerned with female characters, and that it doesn’t carry any particularly feminist message. It is “female-centric” (Fawcett), but aside from wanting to stress the point that the boyfriend doesn’t save the day I’m not sure there’s more to it than this. Slightly troubling is the moment at the end when Mom suggests that she and the girls just blow up the house and run off on their own. “Just us girls.” I don’t know if the plan is to blow up Dad with the house, but Mom doesn’t seem too concerned about him either way. Men don’t understand.
*. Fawcett mentions on the commentary that he thought this would be the first werewolf film in history without a shot of the full moon. Actually, it’s a well-known bit of movie trivia that The Wolf Man doesn’t have any shots of the moon.
*. As with most great little movies, the crew really come through. Most of the names are mentioned by Fawcett in his commentary, and for many of the same things I flagged in my initial set of notes, but they’re worth repeating. It’s very nicely photographed by Thom Best, and terrifically lit, giving the effect of washed-out days and orange nights. Best really makes a little go a long way. Wardrobe by Lea Carlson is great, as the girls don’t just look like Goths but dress with a realistic and individual sense of style. Mimi Rogers is also very well turned out in her domestic-eccentric outfits, including jack-o-lantern earrings on Hallowe’en. The score by Mike Shields is resonant and moody, and the sound design by David McCallum works really well. I thought the noises the werewolf makes tearing apart the house at the end really stood out, which is a point that Fawcett remarks on as well.
*. Ginger Snaps is not the best werewolf movie ever, but the fact is that it came at a kind of trough in the genre. I think Walton says on the commentary that the last great werewolf movie before this was An American Werewolf in London, which had been nearly twenty years earlier. Since then the Howling franchise had played out, but there hadn’t been much else going on. Perhaps Silver Bullet (1985), Mike Nichols’s Wolf (1994), and Bad Moon (1996) might be mentioned. But that’s not a lot of activity. In the twenty-first century things would take off again with CGI transformations and new monsters, but I don’t think this was progress. In most of these movies werewolves became something like zombies: less characters than a kind of stock prop.
*. They made a couple of sequels, neither of which went anywhere. Given all the difficulties involved in the business of film production (movies are as conformist as the suburbs) you have to accept the success of movies like this as something rare and impossible to duplicate. So enjoy it. Chances are you won’t see anything else like it for a while.