The 1990s were a tough time for werewolves. An American Werewolf in Paris was more cringe-inducing than scary. Jack Nicholson’s “Wolf” was a slick if bizarre take on the concept, but it jettisoned too much horror in favor of a commentary on the New York publishing scene. The 80s golden age of The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, Teen Wolf, Monster Squad, and Wolfen was over. It was a genre of monster movies that dearly needed a kick in the nards. Enter: Ginger Snaps. No one saw it coming and indeed a lot of people missed it – but werewolf movies finally got that kick when Ginger stood up and delivered a ball shot that would live in cinematic infamy…
Ginger Snaps is not subtle, it violates your personal space and tears your fucking lungs out. It includes horrifying transformations of a girl growing into a woman and that woman turning into a werebeast. All the gore of getting your first period and watching yourself transform into an adult is intertwined with the havoc of being bitten by a savage horror and watching yourself become a monster.
I don’t want to oversell it but in it’s own way I feel like this movie is almost They Live for feminists. Ginger Snaps was never meant to be taken more seriously than your typical monster flick, but I appreciate the focus on character and attention to subtext without sacrificing the requisite fur and fangs and blood and guts. With a budget of barely $5,000,000 (CANADIAN!) dollars, the creative team leaned hard on a cheap and plentiful special effect that horror fans everywhere are familiar with: TEENAGE ANGST.
The story concerns a werewolf tearing through a small town and two sisters (Ginger and Brigitte) whose lives are forever changed after encountering it. The girls are frumpy, death-obsessed outsiders. They dress like thrift witches and spend their free time staging photoshoots where they fake their own deaths in increasingly gruesome circumstances. They’ve made a pact to die by sixteen and seem to be repelling menstruation (which they call “The Curse”) by power of sheer will. Of course it all falls apart. Ginger gets her period, is bitten by a werewolf, and nothing is the same ever again.
Brigitte spends the rest of the film trying to “fix” Ginger. She enlists the help of my favorite character, Sam, a roguish botany enthusiast with a successful part-time job as the local drug dealer. He lives in a greenhouse where he grows weed, hosts rave parties, bangs cheerleaders, and later devises a cure for lycanthropy. It’s obvious to anyone who has ever met me that I’ve always wanted to be the resident “bad boy” from a horror movie. If I had to choose one I’d wanna be Sam. He’s a cultured badass who doesn’t quite save the day but gets a respectable assist. I feel that destiny is well within my wheelhouse.
There aren’t any unnecessary romances and unlike most horror movies the parents of the main characters aren’t A.W.O.L. or simple set-dressing. Mimi Rogers delivers the performance of her career as the spacey, optimistic matriarch eager to usher her girls into the joys of suburban soccer mom-hood. When the claws come out, shit gets suitably real. The action stuff is fine, but I think the scene where a character unexpectedly gets her period in the school bathroom is the most surprising splattering of blood I’ve ever seen in a horror flick. In it’s own gruesome way, that scene and what it represents is exactly what is so awesome about Ginger Snaps.
Full disclosure: I’ve never been a teenage girl. When my own childhood died, my body didn’t herald the beginning of a descent into maturity by unexpectedly churning out blood and tissue from my genitals. I didn’t evolve into a hyper-sexualized object of forbidden desire for creeps. Nothing much was expected of me and having a voracious libido was encouraged – never questioned. A female human doesn’t look that much different than a male one, there are a few key pieces swapped in and out but ultimately you’re dealing with pretty much the same starter kit. Still, a girl talks about her lot in life and all I can do is nod along. I’m empathetic but it’s all still second-hand information. Basically we have the same operating system, so for the most part I’m sure that somewhere I’ve experienced something at least halfway analogous to whatever you can throw at me. But it’ll always be second-hand, I’ll never be you, I’ll never really know…
Transcending the basic inability to be anyone but yourself is what great art is all about. And if you’re as self-serious as me, this is exactly what Ginger Snaps accomplishes. I’m not saying I walked away from Ginger Snaps with firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be a girl. But its characters and their challenges were so well done and their particular world view so perfectly represented that I got a sense of a different reality, something bigger, beyond werewolves. I mean as far as I can tell I’m trapped in my own nervous system and I’ll never get out alive. My experiences in what time I have occupying this body are limited to the flesh and blood I was dealt when born. This doesn’t make empathy impossible but there is a limit to how long you can walk in someone else’s shoes. Ginger Snaps gives you an hour and a half look at life from the inside of someone else’s body. We’ve seen horror movies about the terror of being a man trapped in a wolf’s body before, Ginger Snaps shows us the terror of being a teen girl trapped in a small town.
Connoisseurs of 90s teen horror and thrillers can indulge in the slow motion soft focus walk of glory, the electro score that flirts with industrial but never takes it home. Witchy teen weirdos wrestling with supernatural forces, washed out colors and self wry one-liners.
You’ll end up quoting a lot of the dialog with your friends and laughing at Brigitte’s dead-on observations of gender and society. It’s funny and smart without being smarmy or corny and never forgets that it’s a horror movie first even in the midst of references to Gloria Steinem and its overall theme of metamorphosis.
Since Ginger Snaps, the werewolf genre still hasn’t gotten a mainstream second renaissance like its zombie and vampire counterparts – just supporting roles in sparkly love triangles with hairless man boys, C.G. shoot-em ups with Kate Beckinsale and meandering Benicio Del Toro flops. Hollywood hasn’t given up on werewolves yet, it just doesn’t know what to do with them. I’ll always love Ginger Snaps. It is my favorite werewolf movie of all time. If you haven’t seen it: seek it out. If you have: watch it again. It never gets old and will never let you down; a movie about metamorphosis that itself is nothing less than transcendent.