Ginger Snaps Back
Ginger Snaps incorporates two classic B-movie plots: the “I was a teenage werewolf” story and the Heathers-style, high school revenge fantasy. A blackly funny bloodbath, it also explores the developing relationship between two sisters, beautiful Ginger (Emily Perkins) and mousy Bridget (Katharine Isabelle), growing up in the bland Canadian suburb of Bailey Downs. Like many films exploring the creepiness of life in the suburbs, Ginger Snaps shows how dysfunction and terror can lurk behind the uniform and “normal” facades of family life.
Bailey Downs is populated by callous kids and clueless adults who interact only when absolutely necessary. Ginger, Bridget, and their peers exist in a world that is dangerously self-enclosed, ruled by popular bullies on the lacrosse field and the fancies of horny boys. The two girls are gothic freaks who openly despise their classmates and yet secretly long for acceptance. The film’s tagline, “They don’t call it the ‘curse’ for nothing,” suggests that the hormonal roller coaster of high school can bring out the beast in any pubescent girl. In Ginger’s case, the onset of the “curse” coincides with an attack from the “Beast of Bailey Downs” that had previously been attacking family pets in the neighborhood.
Emily Perkins, Katharine Isabelle, Kris Lemche, Mimi Rogers
The Beast isn’t the only thing that is strange in Bailey Downs. Ginger and Bridget have the bizarre hobby of photographing each other in spectacular stagings of their own deaths. These scenes include gothic spoofs of “normal” girls’ play, including a depraved tea party where they dress like dolls and serve Clorox bleach. These girls are obsessed by death. Fantasizing about their own demise is a macabre twist on a teenage dream of garnering attention from cruel peers and an escape from the boredom and banality of their lives.
One thing that the girls are attempting to avoid is any consideration of the full realities of being adult women. Both dread “the curse.” They appear to desire to stave off the onset of full-blown puberty by avoiding talk of the inevitable first period. When Ginger’s menstruation finally starts, both girls are bewildered and disgusted. The film uses their incomprehension for comic effect, dramatizing their moments of confusion and disbelief. This is especially true when their mother Pamela (Mimi Rogers) presents the dreaded “welcome to womanhood” speech over dessert (along with an oozing strawberry cake) to a mortified Ginger.
The horror genre provides the freedom to amplify the hormonal transformations of “normal” teenaged girls by making cliches literal. Ginger’s newly discovered sexuality is accompanied by all the changes common to the experience with the added complication that Ginger is also turning into a werewolf as a consequence of the Beast’s bite. The film captures how divisive and alien sexuality can appear from the perspective of one standing on the other side of the divide of puberty. Ginger and Bridget’s conflicted relationships to being female lead them to see their gender as both a curse and a cover. Girls can be “sluts, virgins, teases and bitches,” Ginger reasons, but no one will ever suspect that girls could do something like make a classmate mysteriously disappear (obviously, they haven’t seen Carrie).
In order to divert attention from their strange behavior at home, the girls turn to Pamela, soliciting advice for the first time on “what men want.” Based on their mother, it is pretty easy to see why the girls would have grown cynical about the prospects of womanhood. Pamela is maniacally perky, yet completely unable to relate to her daughters. She is so desperate for their approval that she is willing to help them hide their wicked behavior just for the simple pleasure of being “cool” in their eyes. Crime and violence, the film suggests, bind the girls together in an outlaw sisterhood that Pamela is more than willing to exploit in order to be accepted by her surly and secretive daughters.
Still, Pamela’s advice on sex comes a little too late for Ginger, who has already sought out her first sexual experience. Ginger is disappointed and surprised to realize that she has been tormented by a need to destroy that she had mistaken for the sexual urge. She admits to Bridget, “I get this ache and I thought it was for sex, but it’s to tear everything to fucking pieces.” Through Ginger’s metamorphosis into a beast, the film shows how the conflicting impulses of her own body become foreign to her.
Ginger’s conversion into a werewolf corresponds to mythology of the lycanthrope, but with many of the sexualized connotations of the vampire story. While Ginger contracts the malady after being bitten, she finds that she can transmit it to others through sexual contact after her boyfriend becomes afflicted. This updates the typical werewolf story with an AIDS-conscious paranoia about the mix of unsafe sex and blood, while also looking back, to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which intimated a connection between the spread of syphilis and unbridled sexuality. Also echoing Dracula, the chaste Bridget pairs with drug dealer Sam (Kris Lemche), Ginger Snaps‘s Van Helsing. Together, they look for ways to save Ginger who, like Stoker’s Lucy, must ultimately be punished for being a sexually available and attractive female. Unlike Lucy, however, Ginger’s violent impulses develop fully.
Ginger Snaps begins as a sharp black comedy, but too often resorts to the conventions of basic teen horror and devolves into a predictable gore fest. This is disappointing, because initially, the film has a promisingly depraved take on the alienating experience of coming into sexuality. Bridget, faced with the choice between her steadfast love for her sister and her revulsion at the monster Ginger has become, is given the choice to join the ranks of the damned or stop her sister’s violence any way possible. Using the werewolf motif allows Ginger Snaps to dramatize how girls can feel confined to two options for their behavior: conform to “normal,” controlled sexuality or face the consequences. The film retains its perverse edge with an ambiguous ending that resists both options and instead emphasizes the power of the bonds of female friendship.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article