By S. Pisaster | PaEHba Day | November 18, 2009 |
By S. Pisaster | PaEHba Day | November 18, 2009 |
Do you know why I chose to avoid Jennifer’s Body? In the weeks leading up to the release, the director frequently commented on how original the film was, because it featured both a female protagonist and monster, and because the focus was on the relationship between two teenage girls. And I immediately thought, “This woman has not seen Ginger Snaps. This woman is not a true horror fan.” See, there are casual horror fans, the sort who go to see the big releases and have seen the big-name horror classics like Halloween and The Lost Boys, and then there are the hard-core horror fans, the people who seek out obscure indie and foreign horrors, who find horror films through word of mouth, flipping through Fangoria, or just cruising the horror section at the local video store and picking up whatever looks interesting. If you’re one of the former, then you’ve probably never heard of Ginger Snaps. If you’re one of the latter, however, you’ve probably not only seen it, you’ve also most likely added it to your private list of “Best Werewolf Films Ever.” It’s a smart, well made independent horror film that just happens to also have a feminist message.
The film focuses on the Fitzgerald sisters, Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins), known to her family as “Bee,” two suburban teenagers with a codependent relationship and an obsession with death. The sisters do everything together: as far as they’re concerned it’s them against the world. Ginger, the elder by a little less than a year, is clearly the dominant one. She’s attractive, smart-mouthed, and completely uninterested in boys (despite their keen interest in her), though there’s an edge of insecurity to her attitude. She’s the sort of rebel who’ll reject you before you have the chance to reject her. Younger sister Bee, on the other hand, comes across as more sensitive and shy, always deferring to Ginger, who doesn’t have any problem bullying her. She’s perpetually hunched over with a curtain of hair obscuring her face, as if she wants to hide from the world. Brigitte’s skipped a year in school, putting her in the same class as her sister and making it even more impossible for her to escape Ginger’s shadow.
Both girls are three years late getting their periods, an issue of great concern for their mother (played to hilarious perfection by Mimi Rogers), though the girls see it as further proof of their outsider status. As it happens, Ginger gets her first period at the worst possible moment. Something’s been tearing the local dogs to shreds at night, and when Ginger starts menstruating while sneaking out of the house with Brigitte, the smell of her fresh blood attracts the creature’s attention. Ginger is viciously attacked and only manages to escape when the beast is accidentally run over by the local drug dealer, Sam. Once safely home, Ginger convinces Brigitte not to call an ambulance, since they weren’t supposed to go out. Besides, her wounds close up on their own almost immediately, much to Bee’s horror. This is, of course, only the start of Ginger’s trouble. She’s gotten both her womanly curse and another one on the same night.
Almost immediately Ginger starts to pull away from her younger sister. She’s suddenly interested in clothes, boys, and drugs. Plus, her body’s going through all sorts of changes now that she’s becoming a woman …. er … I mean werewolf. She’s growing hair in weird places (oh, honey, that’s normal) and a tail (okay, that’s not) and fangs (I wish). Still, Ginger brushes aside Bee’s concerns that maybe she’s going through something other than normal puberty. Desperate to save her sister even if she isn’t willing to be saved, Bee does some research on lycanthropy (by watching old horror films, natch) and enlists the help of Sam, who has some suspicion that it wasn’t just a very large dog he hit that night. She also starts, finally, to come into her own now that Ginger doesn’t have time for her anymore.
As the next full moon approaches, Ginger’s transformation speeds up (in this version of the werewolf myth, the transformation starts immediately, but completes on the full moon). She finally becomes willing to accept Bee’s help after she finds herself snacking on the next door neighbor’s dog, but by then it might be too late. Ginger begins to lose it, amping up her violence and vacillating between revulsion and pleasure at the changes the curse is creating in her. From there it becomes a race to minimize the damage Ginger does and find a cure before she changes completely.
What’s most fascinating about this movie is the focus on its female characters. There’s no real love interest. (Although Ginger does briefly have a lust-interest, she’s clearly only interested in him physically, which is a nice change from the usual sexual objectification of women in horror.) Sam’s relationship with Bee remains firmly platonic, and he’s the only male with any real presence in the film. The primary relationship is between the sisters, who rely on and love each other despite their differences and the occasional falling-out. They’re so close it doesn’t seem fully healthy, especially given the dynamic of Ginger as the bully and Bee as her loyal follower, but it certainly feels realistic. There’s also some exploration of female rivalry, between the girls and a popular mean-girl named Trina, and mother-daughter interactions are lovingly lampooned. Momma Fitzgerald (the girls call her Pam) is clueless and permissive, trying to raise two teenage girls right while still wanting them to think of her as cool. She’s misguided and easily manipulated, but her devotion to her daughters is absolute. When she does start to suspect something is wrong, she makes it clear she’ll do anything to protect her girls. Most saliently, the film uses werewolfism as an explicit metaphor for female puberty (it’s less on the nose than it is tongue in cheek, I swear), and the movie doesn’t shy away from the gory details. There’s even a scene featuring menstrual-blood stained underwear — when was the last time you saw that in a horror film?
Like most transformation movies, the focus here is less on jump scares (though there are a few of those) and more on the psychological horror, from Bee’s perspective, of watching Ginger slowly turn into an unrecognizable monster. Ginger’s cruel behavior towards her sister after she’s bitten and Bee’s desperate attempts to get her sister back are especially poignant because in many ways Ginger’s behavior is just an exaggeration of normal puberty. It feels like an authentic exploration of the unique relationship between sisters that just happens to include lots of death and destruction.
Of course, it’s also an effective horror movie. The final showdown between Brigitte and a fully transformed Ginger is nicely tense, and there’s a fair amount of gore throughout the film, including a gorgeous opening montage of images of the sisters faking gruesome deaths. This is a low-budget film, and I have to admit that while I love the design of the werewolf, the execution looks pretty fake. Unfortunately, that seems to be par for course for werewolf films, and the filmmakers for the most part sidestep this by keeping the beast shadowed until the very end, letting you fill in the details with your imagination.
If you have a craving for a feminist horror flick and Jennifer’s Body didn’t hit the spot, or just have an interest in thoughtful horror movies in general, then I highly recommend this film.
Extra Special Bonus Interview w/screenwriter Karen Walton (many thanks to Celery for setting this up).
Do you consider yourself a horror fan? What inspired you to write a horror movie?
I am a mad horror fan from childhood; mostly horror literature. I had a special reading class in Grade Six where we read Shelley’s Frankenstein, and then went to see it performed as a stage play and I was HOOKED. But even before that, I used to get in trouble for reading under the covers after lights-out as a kid. One of my mother’s major complaints, beyond ruining my eyesight (successfully, I might add) was that I read stories that consistently gave me nightmares. That has never stopped, I’ve always looked for stories that make me feel something, that rock me to the core, that reach out and grab me and cart me away from the world we know, to the world that might be. Horror always did that for me. Though, I admit I kind of gave up on horror movies in the late ’80s, when they all started seeming very similar or derivative of the Seventies classics to me (for the record, I blame the trailers of the time). Its fans actually made contemporary horror a Do-Over for me. Truly, I liked the people who liked horror, without fail. Researching Ginger got me back in the game and catching up on what was really out there in the international horror cinema big time, and I’ve since returned to my full-on horror geekery of old.
I was not actually inspired to write that particular horror movie; rather notoriously I said no several times before director John Fawcett convinced me to do it. This was 1994, 1995, and SCREAM had not yet launched the “it’s okay to laugh” horror revival in mainstreaming horror movies where I lived. [Our project would be a Canadian independent, artist-driven production initiated & developed first by um, just us — on spec — read: slim odds to start. Worse, Canadian financiers were not well-known for investing in the genre, beyond Mr. Cronenberg’s genius. So I thought, if we get any investors, we’d be knocking ourselves out to do something destined (at the time) for the Direct-to-Home-Sales market.] I was an art-house cinema freak and I saw myself as a character-writer. The horror films of the day — or let me be clear, what I knew of the horror films of the day — had not left me with any impression that “character” was a vital component; especially fully formed, three-dimensional female characters … which I tend to insist upon when I take something on. So — quite wrongly as it turns out — I truly felt I was a bad fit to deliver what it was I thought successful horror films had to be: predictable, unoriginal, and women as victims. That’s not what they all were, but that’s what I thought most of them were.
Someone on a chat board somewhere once happily referred to all that as my ‘baggage.’ And while I still think that guy is a dismissive, arrogant and self-obviating dork … he ain’t all wrong. John knew I was wrong about a lot of it, and to his credit he simply would not leave me alone about the idea of doing a “teen girl werewolf movie.” In the end what inspired me to say yes was the director’s irresistible final challenge: write a horror movie YOU would go see. And so, eventually, I did.
The idea of lycanthropy as a metaphor for a woman’s monthly curse is hardly new, but it’s nice to see the misogynistic implications turned on their head. Did you set out specifically to make a feminist horror flick? The reception of Jennifer’s Body notwithstanding, do you think there’s a market for such horror?
I set out then as I still do on everything now: to write a movie I would not be bored or offended by, that would have roles for young women that were not based on their cup size nor how sexually exploitable they could be, who made their own decisions for their own reasons, and never because of a boy. Did I set out to make a feminist flick? Well being a feminist, everything I write — all my productions for TV & film have been inescapably informed by my world view, voice and values — of course. Did I make a shopping list of stuff I wanted said that I felt wasn’t being said, with Ginger? Youuuu betcha. Did I at anytime put all that before the quality of the experience? In a way, I hope not. The story, any dimensionality that helps it feel fresh and original has to come first — because one’s aim as a storyteller is always to acknowledge expectations (“it’s a werewolf movie, give ‘em a werewolf movie”) — and then if you’re lucky — surprise them with what those old “givens” can still say or do, if you shake ‘em hard enough. It just so happened that fronting young women like Bee & Ginge was unusual then. But they were part of a big turning tide in “alternative characterizations” going on all over, in lots of people’s work. Looking back now, I see them as a part of the decade they were created in more then anything. [I am not a “formula writer” and I hope I never become one. I’m writing always hoping to give an emotionally-true experience with main characters we can all at least respect if not agree with and yes, I’m always consciously looking for ways to bend conventional wisdom & especially the portrayals of young women.] Am I consciously taking out my sharp stick and poking certain cliches in the eye? Yup, what’s funny, what’s scary — it’s all up for grabs when I sit down. That’s honestly the best part — reinventing old wheels. Surprising myself is usually my bar. If a cynical jerk like me laughs out loud at an idea turned on its head, then I figure I’m close.
As far as market, of course — women have always been front and centre as both creators and as intriguing roles in the very healthy marketplaces of all kinds of horror. Ginger did well internationally, and continues to have quite a wild second, third, ninth life on television and home use even now, as she turns (gasp!) ten years old. Horrors have long lives because they never stop being interesting or at least pretty damn amusing on all kinds of levels. And I know no more receptive (and better, critical, wonderfully engaged) audience than the horror clans for their passion to include all possible worlds and points of view.
One of the reasons I personally love the horror genre is the fact that horror movies consistently feature strong female protagonists who both male and female audience members can identify with. Still, it’s rare for a horror movie to focus as heavily on female relationships and women’s issues as Ginger Snaps does. Did you worry that male horror fans wouldn’t be attracted to the film given its gynocentric nature? Did you try to strike a balance of appealing to both die-hard feminists and die-hard horror fans while writing it?
I have met very few straight men truly dissuaded by something’s “gynocentric nature.” Fearful, always — but death is an “I don’t care” in stories. And for those in the huge demographic that that silly blanket identifier excludes — it was, “yes let me totally gross you out with my monthly reality.” Did I worry about the boys? No, honestly I didn’t because male horror fans tend to be the female POV’s most ardent supporters, in my limited experience. Women remain — even to women — a boundless frontier of unsolved but beguiling mysteries, every one. Sex and sexual roles have always been at the heart of most cultures’ nightmare fictions and cautionary tales. So I was just out bang my own about a bit. In terms of balancing, no — I didn’t write this for anybody with any great sense of precision in marketing. First of all, as I say, I was a brand new writer learning my craft, and I wasn’t sure who would ever get to see it, back in the day. I wrote this for women and men, adults or nearly adults with a great sense of humor and some appreciation for the history of the genre in common. And then, I was lucky enough to see a film come of all that that got to go out and meet its audience all on its own terms. Which is actually the ideal way to do it, I’m still quite convinced. It takes longer than a multi-billion dollar franchise-target-a-thon ad blitz TELLING you you’re the audience for the film (whether that’s true or not). But it’s infinitely more rewarding to say — let’s make something we haven’t seen done six ways from Sunday. It’s certainly a lot more fun to write than busting out the cookie cutters, anyway.
Despite (or maybe because of) its feminist leanings, Ginger Snaps has reached cult status. Were you surprised at the extent that the film was embraced by the horror community?
Hey I’m a Canadian-based independent, female, … screenwriter. I’m still surprised when anybody knows my shit exists. To say I’m extremely grateful is the under-statement of the decade: I got to continue doing what I love to do, because of all kinds of people’s on-going support of that crucial first film. I owe them so much, I want to have them all over for really great steaks. Or something.
Do you have plans to write any more horror flicks in the future (please? Please please)?
LOL, well you’re very sweet, cheers. I have been hired to write, adapt or rewrite several horrors since; sadly none have made it to camera for more reasons than Ginger keeps razor blades in her pencil case. That’s showbiz. So lately I came to the realization that the smart thing to do is to return to the way I wrote Ginger — meaning cut out all the people who can help it never happen and just start with writing one I’d pay to go see … and surround it only with those who Get It, over say — those who only Get Corporate Memos. Wish me luck. And thank you very much for this, it’s an honour to be invited to speak with you. - Kw