“Something’s wrong, like, more than you being female.” —Emily Perkins, Ginger Snaps
There are horrors aplenty in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, but none quite as discomforting as the opening sequence, in which Sissy Spacek, playing the doomed wallflower of the title, happens to start her first period in the shower after gym glass. It’s bad enough that she has to shower in front of other girls in the first place; as De Palma’s slo-mo, soft-focus camerawork makes agonizingly clear, her classmates are all more developed than she is, and they stride around the locker room with confidence in their bodies. The irony of her situation—and of the movie as a whole—is that she desperately wants to be like them, and in the moment before things go awry, she’s enjoying the shower in ways that would cause her crazed, Bible-thumping mother to get the vapors. And then the blood flows, the tampons fly, and her transition into womanhood turns into a mortifying ordeal beyond any adolescent’s worst nightmare.
The darkly funny Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps extends Carrie’s menstrual mayhem into a full-on monster movie, something of a hybrid between the high-school metaphor of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the body horror of countryman David Cronenberg. Seemingly left for dead when it premièred at the Toronto Film Festival in 2000—only a mild controversy over the idea of a violent high-school movie so soon after Columbine gave it much heat—the film struck a chord with its irreverent, slyly ambitious take on female troubles. Now 10 years and two sequels later, it looks like the perfect alterna-kid antidote to the chaste romanticism of the Twilight series, a safe space for budding young misanthropes who feel more of a kinship with the goth-girl outcasts of Ginger Snaps than with Kristen Stewart and her poster-ready vampire hunk.
Proof that America doesn’t have a monopoly on pre-fab suburban hellpits, Ginger Snaps takes place in a town called Bailey Downs, which looks like a new development that just kept on developing. In this squeaky-clean environment, the Fitzgerald sisters, Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), are like a two-person trenchcoat mafia, given to wearing layers of dowdy clothes and isolating themselves in glowering secrecy. If they look to other kids like they’re always sharing some nasty, private joke, that’s because they usually are. Their biggest passion is for suicide fantasies. For a class project, they arrange a slideshow of gruesome tableaux—impalings by pitchfork and picket fence, a bathtub drowning, a classic hanging with an eerily stenciled note around the neck. They love to kick around moony scenarios about the awesomeness of their own deaths, and they even have a suicide pact (“Out on the scene and dead by 16, but together forever”), but it’s one thing to toe the line, and another to cross it.
Brigitte and Ginger’s shtick is predicated on their refusal to grow up, to participate, to be like everyone else. And as the movie opens, their bodies have cooperated: Both are a few years late having their first period (“the curse,” as they call it), and Ginger has done her best to cover up the embarrassing fact that she’s the prettiest girl in school. But “the curse” comes for Ginger, coinciding with a full moon and a rash of dog mutilations that not just any old wolf could pull off. The natural changes in Ginger’s body accelerate when a lycanthrope attacks her in the woods; suddenly, there’s hair growing where there wasn’t hair before. She develops an interest in boys, and generally experiences puberty in a vastly compressed time span. Brigitte, still a mumbly sourpuss out of a Tim Burton movie, couldn’t be more horrified; their mother, an oblivious arts-and-crafts-y type played by Mimi Rogers, cannot contain her enthusiasm. Here, the school nurse tries to allay Ginger’s concerns about the bleeding, and accomplishes the opposite:
(Quick side note: Look, condoms in schools! And society somehow hasn’t collapsed!)
For all the gruesome, bloody, American Werewolf In London-like transformations in Ginger Snaps, the most uncomfortable scenes are these variations on “the talk,” when the Fitzgerald sisters have to sit in a room and come to terms with what’s happening to them. There isn’t a teenager in the world who can’t identify with this intense awkwardness, and the speed with which it happens for Ginger (and for Brigitte, too, as collateral damage) makes it much worse. The strongest sections of the film by far—the first half, give or take—deal with the onset of super-puberty; the rest, especially the needlessly protracted finale, are just by-the-numbers horror-thriller stuff, satisfying the genre requirements without adding another layer to them. Director John Fawcett doesn’t have anything like De Palma’s gift for spectacularly ornate violence, so the character stuff and Karen Walton’s fine script carry the film further than its special effects.
As for the unmistakable Cronenbergian elements, they don’t just stop at the psychic stress and body horror; there’s also the ruptured symbiosis between Brigitte and Ginger, which recalls Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. In both films, the sibling bond is predicated on neither one of them ever changing. In Dead Ringers, the brothers have an unsettling system for handling the women who pass through their lives, but love tragically alters the dynamic. Here, the girls also put their bond above all other things—shades of New Cult Canon-mate Heavenly Creatures—and openly discuss offing themselves before adulthood turns them into happy homemakers with potato-shaped husbands and puppies on their sweaters. Ginger’s sudden interest in boys—which converges with her hunger for extreme violence (“I get this ache. I thought it was for sex, but it’s to tear everything to fucking pieces.”)—makes her a stranger to Brigitte, who had counted on them conspiring in their dungeon-like bedroom forever. Or, barring that, following through on the suicide pact. Still, Brigitte tolerates a great deal to protect her out-of-control sister, as in this scene, where she keeps her mother from finding a body they’ve stashed in the freezer:
Though far from perfect, Ginger Snaps excels at the small things that its recent clone, the pre-cooked cult movie Jennifer’s Body, forgot while trying to coast on Diablo Cody-isms and a little of the old ultra-violence. Walton’s screenplay features plenty of stylized, quotable dialogue, but it’s rooted in a perceptive treatment of sibling relationships and growing pains. Ginger Snaps is sometimes guilty of strained cleverness, but it never feels like Walton is just looking for ways to squeeze “move on dot org” into a sentence, as Cody does. The basic conceit of having lycanthropy intersect with menstruation is brilliant—if reminiscent of an Alan Moore-penned Swamp Thing story—and Walton scores feminist points off it at every opportunity. (Money passage, as Ginger ponders how to clean up her mess: “No one ever thinks chicks do shit like this. A girl can only be a slut, bitch, tease, or the virgin next door. We’ll just coast on how the world works.”) It’s almost unfortunate that Ginger’s insatiable-lust-for-human-slaughter problem had to be resolved—and so artlessly, to boot—but Walton and Fawcett are at least working from a baseline of fully realized main characters and a keen understanding of what pubescent girls have to deal with, even if they don’t turn into werewolves. The Twilight phenomenon may speak to their non-threatening fantasies; Ginger Snaps squirms at the uncomfortable truths of who they are.
Next week: Hedwig And The Angry Inch
November 12: In The Company Of Men
November 19: Army Of Darkness
November 26: No column due to Thanksgiving