Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Ginger Snaps

I've seen Ginger Snaps more times than I care to remember. It's one of my horror stand-bys every October. The premise is simple but oh-so brilliant, the story so perfectly and enthusiastically executed and the performances so endearing that it's impossible not to fall in love all over again every time I watch it. It is everything I want in a horror movie. It's gory and a bit tongue-in-cheek but it's also intelligent and thoughtful. It's wildly entertaining but it doesn't pull punches. And it features characters I genuinely care about, which makes the inevitable tragedy of the movie's conclusion all the more heatbreaking. I like horror that scares me but also makes me feel something beyond terror. Ginger Snaps certainly fits that bill.

Ginger Snaps is the story of the close-knit, misfit Fitzgerald sisters. Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) live in the suburban Canadian town of Bailey Downs, a place whose only defining characteristic seems to be its ordinariness. A recent rash of animal killings are, apparently, the only thing that breaks up the monotony and the townsfolk are all a-twitter over the unknown man or beast who is tearing their canine companions limb from limb under cover of darkness. I wondered why these folks didn't just bring their beloved pooches inside at night but maybe they're too dimb-witted and chipper to think that tragedy could strike in their own backyards. It's obvious from the outset that Brigitte and Ginger are fed up with this bland, insipid little community. When they're assigned the school project "Life in Bailey Downs" the girls do a photo shoot and stage pictures of each other commiting various forms of suicide. When they present their slide show to their class their teacher is appalled but the male students think that Ginger is hot. Brigitte and Ginger are bright and creative (and hardworking when they wanna be, cause that suicide project took some effort) but this is not a community that fosters their particular brand of creativity. They clash with their female classmates, who think the sisters are freaks. And while the boys may pine for Ginger she couldn't care less about any of them. The girls have made a pact to get out of Bailey Downs or end their lives and they constantly repeat their mantra "out by sixteen or dead in this scene." Even though they're death obsessed they don't seem to actually want to die. They just seem incredibly stifled and bored. Under different circumstances I'd like to think they'd have gotten out of town and made a new life for themselves in a community where they could feel more accepted. But this isn't that kind of movie.

The one person in town who supports the girls wholeheartedly is their mother, Pamela (Mimi Rogers). But, sadly, support doesn't always equal understanding. Pamela is the kind of woman who wears appliqu├ęd vests, hair bows and festive, dangling pumpkin earrings. She is relentlessly chipper. She comes across, initially, as the target demographic for Hobby Lobby but she's more accepting and open-minded than she first appears. Or maybe she just loves her girls so unconditionally that she overlooks their eccentricities. More than anything, Pamela is preoccupied with the fact that neither of her high-school aged daughters has gotten her first period. So when Ginger complains of pain in her lower back one night at dinner Pamela can barely contain her glee when she asks "Do you think it might be cramps?" There's a definite reluctance on the part of both girls to accept that this is something they're inevitably going to have to deal with. To them the transition to womanhood (ugh, what a Hallmark way of saying it but I couldn't think of anything else) is just another way of selling out and conforming. Sexual maturity is part of what makes their classmates into a bunch of idiotic airheads, as evidenced most clearly by the school's Queen Bee Trina (Danielle Hampton), a mean girl of the highest order who taunts and torments the Fitzgerald sisters during PE class but turns into a simpering pile of empty-headed goo after school when she sees the local drug dealer, and object of her unrequited affection, Jason (Jesse Moss). 

Nevertheless, Ginger does get her first period. Which happens to coincide with a full moon. So, while the girls are out looking for dead dog parts (to use in a prank they're planning for their nemesis, Trina) they are confronted by a werewolf, who attacks Ginger. The girls manage to outrun the beast (who is promptly dispatched by Jason and his minivan) and by the time Brigitte gets her sister home Ginger's wounds have already begun to heal. Post-attack, Ginger becomes increasingly volatile; she's hostile and combative towards Brigitte and she's suddenly got a voracious sexual appetite. But we still catch glimpses of the real Ginger and it's clear that she is a very frightened young woman. One who feels she is no longer in control of her emotions or her body and who is terrified of the damage she might do. It's up to Brigitte to find a cure before the next full moon transforms her beloved sister into a full-on lycanthrope.

I have a particular affinity for tragic female monsters. Angela Bettis's May Canady and Sissy Spacek's Carrie White always elicit my sympathies, even when their stories spiral into bloodbaths and their actions become impossible to condone. Katharine Isabelle's Ginger is cut from the same cloth. The thing that makes Ginger Snaps so special is the incredible bond between the Fitzgerald sisters. Even when every trace of Ginger's humanity is gone the beast she has become still recognizes Brigitte as her sister. And Brigitte is loyal to the end to Ginger. I usually feel bad for misfit characters because they're isolated and alone so the love and devotion these two outcast siblings feel for one another really resonated with me. Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle have fantastic on-screen chemistry and create a bond that's entirely believable. At the outset Brigitte is surly and Ginger is mouthy but as the movie progresses you see the warmth and affection they have for one another and the underlying vulnerability they both feel after being thrust into an impossible, hellish situation. I thought the supporting players defied expectation in pleasant ways, too. Mimi Rogers is terrific as Pamela, whose perpetually perky demeanor belies the depth of her fierce maternal instincts. Jesse Moss's Jason, who initially seems like a cool guy looking out for his own interests, turns out to be sensitive and genuinely concerned for the sisters when he understands their plight. Even Danielle Hampton's Trina exhibits flashes of insecurity underneath her icy, hateful exterior.

Like Carrie, I wonder sometimes about the message Ginger Snaps is trying to convey. I think there's something empowering about Ginger owning her "curse" (in both senses of the word) but as things escalate and she's shown to be out of control I start to worry that the moral to the story is "women who own their sexuality, who feel empowered by it, are scary and need to be put in their place." I feel like that's surely not what the filmmakers wanted me to take away from this movie. Maybe it's meant more as a critique of society's view of strong women rather than a critique of the women themselves. Or, most likely, it's just a story about how awkward and crummy it is to be a teenager and feel like you don't belong. And once you hit puberty and your body starts betraying you things get even worse. I dunno. I'm probably overthinking it. I do know that this is a movie dominated by dynamic female characters and it features actresses who deliver compelling performances. That alone makes it worth checking out. The sharp, snarky dialogue, and the great special effects (sometimes a bit hoaky but mostly a great big practical gore win) are just icing on the cake. This one is definitely something special.

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