Not Just Another Teen Horror Film
(Ginger Snaps, John Fawcett, Canada, 2000, 108 mins)
[Warning: Some big spoilers, but the ending is not revealed.]
Ginger Snaps is a refreshing take on the horror genre, not least because of the relationship between the two protagonists, one of whom becomes the antagonist. The Fitzgerald sisters have a very close bond which is challenged when Ginger, the older sister, is bitten by a werewolf and starts exhibiting wolf-like tendencies.
The sisters are established as two gothic girls, Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins), who are interested in death because they do not want to be like everyone else, but this changes when Ginger starts menstruating and becomes interested in boys, as well as in eating dogs. Brigitte and Ginger’s relationship is depicted as very co-dependent at the beginning – their catchphrase ‘out by sixteen or dead on the scene, but together forever’ is repeated numerous times throughout the film and emphasises how they feel that only they understand each other, and even their mother comments on how they act like they are attached at the hip. Although their intense desire not to conform makes them outcasts at school, they genuinely seem not to care because of their close bond, but when Ginger starts acting differently Brigitte really starts to feel alone.
Ginger is bitten by a werewolf the day she gets her first period (thus automatically linking the idea of puberty and lycanthropy), which is then run over by Sam, the likeable local drug dealer. Body horror features very strongly in the film, as Ginger starts growing a lot of hair in weird places and even a tail, and the focus on menstruation (the tagline for the film is ‘they don’t call it the curse for nothing’) brings a gross-out aspect which is different to that of most horror films due to its roots in nature. The mood swings brought on by the werewolf bite make Ginger more akin to a stereotypical teenager rather than someone who strongly does not want to conform to standard teenage practises, and further drives a wedge between the two sisters. Ginger starts dressing differently, doing drugs and having sex – in other words, growing up and changing – which conforms to the popular depiction in horror films of sexually active young people as bad or immoral, which is one of the ways the film stays rooted in traditional horror-film features. Brigitte feels left behind, and when Ginger starts becoming violent and accidentally causes Trina’s death, Brigitte definitely knows that something is wrong and enlists Sam’s help to try to find a cure for her sister.
Brigitte’s intense desire to help Ginger means that she helps her bury Trina’s body and does everything in her power, with the help of Sam, to try to prevent Ginger’s slow, but sure, transformation into a werewolf, despite Ginger’s increasingly harsh treatment of her. This ends with Ginger’s complete transformation into a rather disappointing werewolf, and a final scene in the Fitzgerald house with Werewolf-Ginger, Brigitte and Sam, which is suitably tense and gory to match the tone of the rest of the film.
An interesting aspect of this horror film is its treatment of parents; while parents in most horror films based around teenagers or university-age students are either non-existent or dealt with as mere nuisances, hardly gracing the screen apart from to comment on how they will be out of town and un-contactable for one week, Ginger Snaps creates a real relationship between the Fitzgerald girls and their mother (Mimi Rogers). Although she ignores the fact that her daughters are obsessed with death and seems oblivious to what is really going on, easily tricked by Brigitte pretending to want her mother’s opinions on what men want to distract her from Trina’s body in the freezer, when she realises that her daughters are the reason for the girl’s death, she tells Brigitte that she will not let anyone take them away from her, and offers to burn their house down and start a new life elsewhere. Her constant presence throughout the film not only serves to show how annoying teenagers may feel a parent is, as well as to show how unaware most parents really are of what goes on in their teenage children’s lives, but it also establishes that a parent-child bond is a lot more than it is usually shown to be in horror films. Another unusual aspect of the film is that Brigitte, the main protagonist, is not the object of affection of every male in sight. In fact, Sam makes it explicit that he does not think of her like that, despite his helping her to create a cure for lycanthropy.
The film’s feminist overtones further strengthen its appeal and position as no regular horror film. When she is making out with Jason, a classmate she is dating, he tells Ginger to ‘lie back and relax’, to which she replies, ‘you lie back and relax’. When he laughs and asks, a smug grin on his face, ‘who’s the guy here?’, Ginger responds by pushing him down and dominantly climbing on top of him. Her desire to challenge stereotypical gender roles is reflected in her observation that she will be seen as just a ‘lay’, while Jason will be seen as the big man, ‘the hero’, which is very much a comment on modern attitudes towards sexual relations between males and females. She makes more obvious the film’s own subversion of stereotypical gender roles by commenting that girls do not do what her and Brigitte do, that is, end up with a dead girl’s body buried under their shed, as ‘a girl can only be a slut, bitch, tease or the virgin next door’ and talks of using these perceptions to her advantage.
Ginger Snaps works better as an exploration of a sisterly relationship put under pressure rather than just as a horror film, although the horror features definitely add something to the main themes. However, Ginger as a full-on werewolf is slightly disappointing as the big, clumsy ‘werewolf’-suit is a lot less cool than the creepy make-up effects on Ginger’s eyes, forehead and teeth, and the large amount of swearing (I know they’re teenagers, but surely one swear word per sentence is a bit over the top?), tends to detract from the action rather than add to the emotion. However, the film seems to achieve what it sets out to do: it uses the werewolf myth to explore notions of gender and puberty in a creepy and somewhat satisfying way, mainly thanks to the stand-out acting of the actresses Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins, whose emotive acting makes what might otherwise be a regular horror film a really intriguing and tense viewing experience.