Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Off the Shelf: John Fawcett's Ginger Snaps (2000)

Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins in Ginger Snaps

John Fawcett's horror comedy Ginger Snaps has the good sense not to take itself too seriously. This low-budget Canadian feature, with a clever screenplay by Karen Walton, is essentially a prankish menstrual joke much like Brian De Palma's Carrie. Fifteen-year-old Brigitte Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins) and her sixteen-year-old sister, Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), are both outcasts who are preoccupied by death. Their self-styled Goth lifestyle is so gloomy that the only joy they experience is collaborating on a school project where they photograph a number of mock-suicide attempts. Brigitte and Ginger are not only sisters; they're spiritual twins who loathe their placid suburban environment. Yet they are both so tied to their deep blue forebodings that neither has had her period yet. They take refuge in life's shadows as a way of hiding from the light of their own femininity. The night Ginger finally gets "the curse" she also has the misfortune of being bitten by a werewolf. This horrific attack slowly transforms her into a lycanthrope herself. The joke, of course, is that puberty has not only turned her into a hot babe who draws all this attention from the guys; it's also transformed her into a voracious beast who is out for blood. "I've got this ache," she tells Brigitte, "and I thought it was for sex, but it's to tear everything to pieces." With the help of Sam (Kris Lemche), a local pot dealer and amateur botanist, Brigitte tries to bring her demon sister back from the brink.

Ginger Snaps creates a delicate balance between horror and comedy and this dramatic hybrid works quite effectively for the first two-thirds of the picture. What makes the movie effective is largely the young actors inhabiting these roles. Perkins gives the funniest angst-ridden performance since Winona Ryder put the bloom on gloom in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. Brigitte is one of those girls who is so afraid of attracting attention that she seeks shelter under her forlorn locks. Perkins doesn't make her pathetic, though – she takes us right inside Brigitte's yearnings and her deep need to save her sister. Isabelle is also beautifully cast as Ginger and her erotically charged transformation into this predatory she-wolf gives off a buzz filled with both excitement and dread. When she loses her virginity it's with Jason (Jesse Moss), a popular young stud who's been itching for an opportunity to deflower her and then gets more than he bargained for. Lemche's drug dealer also matches up perfectly with Perkins' Brigitte. They both wear dark clouds for halos.

Director John Fawcett and Katharine Isabelle

The picture loses some of its suspense and humour in the last third when it abandons its savvy and scary journey into adolescent fears. By the end, Fawcett has turned more literal-minded and pointlessly gory. After starting the film with a beauty of an opening scene, he isn't able to fully sustain the quivering mood he's set up. We also don't get a clear feeling of community in this suburban neighbourhood, which would have helped explain why Brigitte and Ginger feel so alien. It's also too bad the movie never follows up on Ginger's trying to seduce other boys once she infects Jason.

Ginger Snaps may lose its metaphorical snap by the end, but it never goes dumb. When Brigitte asks Ginger, "Don't you think our deaths should be a little bit more than cheap entertainment?," the movie certainly strikes a contemporary nerve. Ginger Snaps not only reflects the dark emotions set loose by hormonal changes, but also explores how those changes have impact on the culture at large – as in the rash of school shootings by angry, disenfranchised kids seeking revenge on their assumed tormentors. Ginger Snaps may ultimately back away from the nerve it hits when it falls back on familiar horror tropes, but thankfully it never loses its bite.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger.

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