The Terror of Adolescence

Ginger Snaps (2000) is the first movie covered so far that actually qualifies as a modern horror movie. For as creepy as Count Orlock was in Nosferatu, and for as paradigm-setting as the Universal monsters are, they fall short of being scary by our contemporary (perhaps somewhat desensitized) standards. This movie, however, kicks off unsettling, ramps continuously upward, and closes with an adrenaline-fueled climax.

This is also the first movie to give us girls and women as viewpoint characters. The closest we’ve gotten until now would be Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn Carnahan in the 1999 The Mummy remake. Other than that, we get a few scenes in the original The Mummy, the end of Ex Machina, and (debatably) a few pieces of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

(This is within the realm of film. Penny Dreadful has given plenty of viewpoint time to women, especially in its second season. Even that show is not as girl-and-woman-cented as Ginger Snaps, though.)

The story’s primary duo are the Fitzgerald sisters, Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and the eponymous Ginger (Katharine Isabelle). Both in high school, they actively resist the idea of growing up, preferring instead to stage elaborate tableaux depicting one or both of them as dead. This all changes when the creature that’s been killing dogs in the neighborhood attacks them one night, scratching Ginger.

Much of the movie follows Ginger’s gradual descent into lycanthropy, which just so happens to mimic many of the elements of puberty. Brigitte grows increasingly distressed and seeks a cure for her sister’s condition, turning to local drug dealer Sam (Kris Lemche) as well as Pamela (Mimi Rogers), the girls’ mother. The casualty list grows, eventually shifting from canine victims to human, and the movie culminates with a showdown between the sisters, Ginger having fully converted to wolf form.

Like the best of the Universal monster movies, Ginger Snaps uses its monster as a metaphor. Unlike the dual-nature-of-man metaphor of The Wolf Man (which, as I’ve already discussed, is just as ably if not better represented by any of a number of interpretations of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Ginger Snaps steers into the change/metamorphosis/transformation aspects of lycanthropy.

Adolescence is an unsettling time for many people as their bodies change and feelings heighten. If one contemplates being changed against one’s will into a hungry animal, driven by unfamiliar urges, the distinctions between that experience and puberty appear to be more a matter of degree than of kind. Add in the long-standing folkloric connection of lunar cycles with both werewolves and menses and you’ve got the recipe for a monster story centered on a teenage girl. (Those who prefer their werewolf-as-female-puberty stories in prose form are encouraged to seek out Suzy McKee Charnas’s 1989 story, “Boobs.”)

Nowadays, the female werewolf story, often with themes similar to those of Ginger Snaps, is familiar to regular consumers of lycanthropiana. From Once Upon a Time to Bitten to Being Human to Trick ‘r’ Treat to others, the idea has been played out in several variations. What most stories like this have in common, though, is that they follow in the wake of Ginger Snaps. The most notable version of this story to precede Ginger Snaps is probably the weirder and decidedly less well-known – although still interesting! – The Company of Wolves.

What I think sets Ginger Snaps apart from the many other variations on this idea is how much the story revolves around Brigitte. Often, we see werewolf stories focus on the werewolf and how the condition affects them. We rarely see as much attention paid to how the people who love them respond. The puberty metaphor intersects well with this narrative choice, with Brigitte’s confusion, frustration, and desire to cure her sister mimicking in an exaggerated way how younger siblings can feel when they watch their older siblings change physically and develop new interests. The aching sense of loss, the knowledge that things can’t really go back to the way they were before…these are poignant, human notes that really resonate. Rarely do monster movies spend this much time on the anguish of those who love the monster (nor would that approach work for some monsters).

From a visual production perspective, Ginger Snaps works heavily with make-up, puppetry, and practical effects, which distinguishes it from the largely CGI screen werewolves that have followed. This remains an area where the immediacy of practical effects gives the monster a greater sense of threat than its computer-animated descendants.

Across several dimensions, Ginger Snaps succeeds as a monster-horror movie. It is one of a small number of effective werewolf movies, and it is certainly more effective in nearly all respects than Universal’s The Wolf Man.

Next up, we jump in the water with our final Universal monster: The Creature from the Black Lagoon!

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