When John Fawcett and Karen Walton’s Ginger Snaps was released in 2001, the horror film landscape was not particularly promising. A few years earlier, Scream had ushered in a slasher revival, which quickly exhausted itself. The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project helped keep horror filmmaking alive, but from their success studios mostly absorbed wrongheaded lessons like: having a twist ending, or: making a Blair Witch sequel. The market seemed so uninterested in original horror films that Ginger Snaps never actually scored a proper theatrical release in the United States; the Canadian production premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2000, and released in Canadian theaters the following spring.
But the film found a greater audience when it came to DVD, and is now a cult favorite, warranting an extras-packed Shout! Factory Blu-ray. Watching the film now, it seems to anticipate its own cult, sometimes to its detriment. The premise certainly has camp potential: Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and her little sister Brigitte (Emily Perkins) are sisters in the same grade (Brigitte skipped ahead). Both are surly goths who disdain other teenagers and have only each other—until Ginger is attacked by a mysterious creature and starts exhibiting strange symptoms of both adolescence (the period she’s been willing away seems to finally show up) and werewolfism.
For the most part, Ginger Snaps takes its characters seriously. Fawcett (director) and Walton (screenwriter) pay a lot of attention to the relationship between Ginger and Brigitte, and even cartoonier supporting characters have some humanity to them, particularly their relentlessly upbeat mother (Mimi Rogers), whom the film clearly paints as loving and well-intentioned within her bouts of cluelessness. But sometimes the filmmaking tells another, sillier story: low angles and dramatic zooms that hint at a more Sam Raimi-ish take on the material, and some of Walton’s dialogue toys with Heathers-ish slanginess (sometimes it lands closer to Degrassi territory, although maybe that’s just the Canadian accents).
Some of this stuff is fun, and probably necessary to smuggle in the film’s more serious ideas. The clashing tones are exactly the kind of weirdness the horror genre can offer more easily than more “normal” comedies or dramas; as it happens, though, the shifts of Ginger Snaps also contribute to feelings of scattered repetition. Almost 30 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray drive home the feeling that the filmmakers had a lot they wanted to cover, and didn’t always find the room for it all.
Ginger Snaps is thematically overstuffed, too. At first, it positions Ginger as particularly attached to the theatrical, death-obsessed promises the girls have made to each other since childhood (on suicide: “It’s so us!”), while Brigitte appears more cautious. After she gets bitten, though, the hormone-related metaphor re-orients Ginger as the one getting ready to move on from childhood without Brigitte. Then, as Ginger runs wilder, Brigitte takes the more adult role, trying to control her sister; while Ginger grows angry that they’re not experiencing these changes together, Brigitte is positioned as both more and less mature. Even the lycanthropy metaphor shifts: initially, it stands in for menstruation, but later is used to recall sexually transmitted diseases, with a stricken boy panicking about what Ginger “gave” him.
All of this follows emotionally more than logically, sold by the idea that the sisterly relationship is volatile and complicated, and by the film’s lead performances, particularly Katharine Isabelle, who transcends any self-consciousness by making Ginger so funny, sad, and frightening, sometimes within the same scene. Perkins, who spends her early scenes wearing a perpetually scornful frown, also does strong work as a girl who must come out of her shell, if only to attempt to save herself and her beastly sister.
Ginger Snaps anticipates a series of horror films that followed it (coincidentally or not) and also focused on the female experience: Lucky McKee’s May; Teeth; and the underappreciated Jennifer’s Body could be screened alongside it for a woman-centric horror film festival. Appropriately, one of the new disc’s best extras is a 30-minute panel on women in horror, only featuring female participants who don’t have a direct connection to the filmmakers. This discussion provides outside context so often missing even from well-assembled discs, especially for newer films where the creators are still available to talk about them.
The filmmakers have plenty to say, too: there are solo commentaries from both Fawcett and Walton, and while they’re complimentary about their creative relationship (an hour-long behind-the-scenes feature explains that Fawcett had the general idea of doing a female werewolf film, which he took to Walton, who ran with the premise), it might have been more interesting to hear them discuss the film together on a single track, rather than separate, isolated discussions.
Fawcett and Walton both later worked on the Canadian TV series Orphan Black; offbeat genre fare is clearly a lingering interest (though Fawcett only executive-produced the Snaps direct-to-video sequel and prequel). If there’s a problem with revisiting Ginger Snaps, it’s the realization that studios are more likely to hire a woman for an earnestly clumsy remake of Carrie than produce a horror film that offers a fresh and female-centric point of view. Fourteen years on, Ginger Snaps shows a lot of promise, the kind that regrettably few mainstream horror films have much interest in keeping.