If you like horror films that use the symbols of the genre to explore psychological and social ideas then high school is perhaps the ideal setting for that kind of horror movie. The psychological and social brutality flies fast and furious in the halls of your average high school, thus providing fertile territory for the inventive horror filmmaker. Ginger Snaps is a noteworthy example of this teenage social Darwinism flavor of horror, using the werewolf archetype to tackle an ambitious array of high school-oriented themes.
The heroines of Ginger Snaps are misfit sisters Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins). Both are outcasts who have developed morbid interests in the dark and creepy as a response to their dull yet cruel suburban upbringing: they even have a suicide pact to off themselves by the time Ginger reaches the age of sixteen. That time is upon them and Brigitte seems ambivalent about it — but the plan is thrown aside when Ginger is attacked and bitten by a four-legged beast that has been bedeviling their suburb.
Said beast is hit by a car but that doesn’t save Ginger, who starts showing some uncharacteristic behaviors: an interest in sex, a new “alpha” attitude and a desire to tear apart living things. Brigitte finds an unlikely ally in local dealer Sam (Kris Lemche), whose savvy with horticulture may help to find a cure, but Ginger’s hunger moves at a speed — and racks up a body count — that forces Brigitte to make some hard choices.
Ginger Snaps is the kind of horror film that bowls you over in the first few minutes with its sense of self. It’s drawing on some clear influences — An American Werewolf In London, Heathers, etc. — but mixes these elements into something that has its own distinctive sense of flair. Karen Walton’s script is often wickedly funny and John Fawcett’s direction slickly combines horror atmosphere with the visual style of a John Hughes high school opus.
The one notable problem with Ginger Snaps is that Fawcett and Walton aren’t always in total control of their array of ideas and influences. Walton’s script is clever in how it uses the werewolf myth to touch on a variety of themes — the scary nature of female puberty, how changes in social desires often force close friends apart during the high school years, how the tension of sibling rivalry boils over between teenagers — but it tries on these ideas and discards them as quickly as a high school kid tests out a new persona.
This tendency is really notable in the third act, which goes for a more overt horror/less comedy feel than the rest of the film: to its credit, it pulls off some genuinely effective setpieces despite middling makeup effects. It’s just a shame that Walton and Fawcett couldn’t figure out a more effective way to fuse the satirical and the gruesome in a consistent way.
However, these problems don’t negate the appeal of Ginger Snaps. Horror fans will be thrilled with its barrage of ideas, which is strong enough to carry it through even when its internal consistency flags. Better yet, the film is anchored by a fantastic pair of lead performances: Isabelle gives an appropriately showy and charismatic performance as the film’s main were-teen while Perkins does subtler but no less impressive work as the sibling in Ginger’s shadow. Perkins really has to carry the film during its second half and she gives it an emotional depth that lends the material a much-needed grounding.
In short, Ginger Snaps is one of the most interesting additions to the werewolf genre since the genre’s last big heyday in the early ‘80s and an interesting example of how to fuse themes and archetypes in horror. Though it is not always as consistent as you might hope it would be, its uniquely high level of ambition makes it worth the investment of time for horror fans in the market for something a little smarter than the norm.