GINGER SNAPS: One Of The Few Good Werewolf Movies

BC on the terrific Canadian film from 2000 about the horrors of puberty.

On one of the many bonus features offered on Ginger Snaps' Blu-ray from Scream Factory, director John Fawcett claims that part of his inspiration for making the film was the fact that most werewolf movies suck. I'm sure some would disagree, but I'm not among them - I can think of very few I'd classify as really good movies. It's a lot easier to think of the bad ones, in fact, and the few I like are the ones EVERYONE likes: American Werewolf in London (not Paris, you monsters), The Howling, the original Wolf Man, and the newest of the bunch, Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers (which Scream Factory is also releasing later on this year). I'm comfortable putting Ginger Snaps (and its first sequel) in that company, but it took some warming up to.

I first saw the film back in 2007 and was mixed; I loved the second half, but found the first to be quite slow and not particularly involving. The girls (Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle) were abrasive, borderline hateful, which made it hard for me to care much about what happened to them. I was also primed for a mystery of some sorts - Ginger (Isabelle) is bitten by a werewolf early on and begins to turn into one herself, but the original wolf is something of a MacGuffin; he exits the movie moments later and no one is concerned with who he might have been as a human. Indeed, it doesn't really matter, but on my first viewing I didn't know that, and thus I was watching the movie "wrong," in a way.

What the movie really is, and why it works (my second viewing, in 2014, was much more successful), is that it uses the lycanthrope idea as a metaphor (for puberty) and largely avoids the usual werewolf movie tropes. Sure, there's mention of silver and full moons (the latter given a clever spin), but those elements are not in the forefront. The focus remains on the relationship between Ginger and her sister Brigitte (Perkins), as the latter does everything in her power to stop Ginger's budding transformation into being a wom-, er, a werewolf, as the older sister starts to embrace it more and more. It's even got a compressed timeline that only allows for one full moon/transformation, rather than the usual thing where it takes place over months or works in some "oh the moon will be full for three days, weird!" nonsense to get the monster out and allow the character to turn back into a human at least once for full dramatic effect.

This means we don't really get a glimpse at Ginger-wolf until the film's final reel, and with the movie being 108 minutes that might sting for some who want to see Isabelle wolf out for more of the runtime. Instead, she gradually changes - her back sports some scaly bumps, and she's got a tail, but the movie doesn't cheat - we don't see her as a full wolf any sooner than that full moon. It's worth the wait; not only is it an all-practical design (as they explain on the bonus features, CGI was too expensive back then and thus not available to smaller budgeted films like this - it's a shame that didn't remain the case) but it's unlike most that I've seen. Truthfully it's kind of ugly, but I like that they didn't opt for a "sexy" werewolf to match the actress - it's almost insect-like in a way, though still recognizable as a wolf creature.

But it's the puberty metaphor that really makes it work; obviously I can't appreciate some of the subtleties as well as its female fans, but this is a very niche sub-sub-genre in horror that has always yielded some inspired (if not equally successful) entries. Carrie, Nightmare on Elm Street 2, My Soul To Take... these movies all more or less tread the same ground as Snaps, but they all belong in different sections of your horror-fied video store (Supernatural powers! Possession! Slashers!). And it even finds a way to work in both sexes; Ginger bites a guy and he starts to transform too, getting a pimply looking complexion for his trouble (and a horrifying scene where he begins to piss blood - this isn't part of puberty but it certainly ties into the "WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING DOWN THERE?" feeling young men might get). And even ignoring all the hormonal elements, there's a sweet and sad story about sisters growing apart, something anyone with a sibling can probably identify with - as unlikable as they may be at times, you can't deny that they love each other very much (to an unhealthy degree, perhaps), and thus it's a bummer to see one drift away and leave the other behind. That it's because she's turning into a werewolf just makes it more fun!

I recall liking the sequel more (the first sequel, that is. The third film, a prequel of sorts, is pretty lousy), so hopefully Scream Factory can get a hold of it as they've done a fantastic job here. The film had a pretty good special edition released in its native Canada, but that never got a real US release - Lions Gate put the film out at the wrong aspect ratio and with no features at all. So this is basically a Blu-ray of the respectable release, but with new bonus features to sweeten the deal (plus a respectable high-def transfer, of course). The big draw is a new 60+ min retrospective doc featuring Fawcett, Walton, editor Brett Sullivan (who directed the second film), Perkins and others (no Isabelle or Kris Lemche, sadly), which covers all the usual ground but with the length allowing more detail and time spent on the film's genesis. The unfortunate timing (they were making the movie just after Columbine) and unsuccessful theatrical release in the US are also brought up, though they don't go into the sequels much (neither of which had Fawcett or Walton's involvement; the former was listed as an executive producer but that seems to be a formality). The other new feature is a roundtable discussion about puberty in horror films (yay!), featuring Rebekah McKendry, Heidi Honeycutt and Axelle Carolyn, moderated by Kristy Jett. It's a good discussion, though (tech nerd alert!), it's not very well put together - the editing/blocking is awkward and distracts from the insights the panelists are offering. Still, it's worth listening to for sure.

The rest of the bonus features are carried over from the Canadian special edition, though they're all new to me (and likely most US viewers). The commentaries by Fawcett and Walton are both quite good - at first I wondered if they were separately recorded for the usual reason of director and writer not getting along, but I was happily proven wrong, as each is quite complimentary of the other and found it to be a satisfying working relationship (obviously; they continue to work together, most recently on Orphan Black). So while Walton can be a bit grating with her negative attitude of the horror genre (she seems to think a good horror film is as rare as a unicorn), I encourage you to carve out the time to listen to both; there is very little repeated info, with Fawcett focusing on production and such while Walton sticks to thematic observations and story concepts. The deleted scenes (also with commentary) aren't essential, though they certainly help smooth over a few minor plot hiccups (like why their mom enters the party near the end), making them worth a look (and they are thankfully given a bit of bumper to give us a sense of where they belong in the film). Audition footage and behind-the-scenes video of making the werewolf is also included; it'll take you like five hours to go through all of the material here! Easily the most jampacked Scream Factory release since the Halloween sequels.

I'm not sure if a great werewolf movie can be made nowadays; the reliance on CGI will be a given and will thus already put the movie at a huge disadvantage (you can't talk about the wonders of practical FX for any reasonable amount of time without bringing up Rick Baker and/or Rob Bottin's work in 1981), and the odds simply aren't in a filmmaker's favor. But I'd love to be wrong, and with this and Dog Soldiers both over a decade old at this point, the time is nigh for someone to give it a try. But learn from Ginger Snaps' example - the movie has to be ABOUT something first and foremost, with the werewolf backing it up. Otherwise you're no better than one of the many terrible DTV Howling entries.