With pointless exercises in exploitation like "Scary Movie" and "Valentine" sucking the life out of whatever goodwill the "Scream" trilogy was able to generate, one would think that the creatively-bankrupt teen horror genre was dead. However, with the release of the Canadian horror film "Ginger Snaps", it seems that there is still some life left after all. Essentially a reworking of the werewolf mythos, "Ginger Snaps" is a sassy and surprisingly smart horror-comedy that equates a young woman's supernatural affliction with the physical and psychological turmoil of puberty-- not your average "Teen Wolf".
Set in the wasteland of suburbia, the story centers around two sisters, Ginger (Katharine Isabelle of "Disturbing Behavior") and Brigitte Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins of "Stephen King's It"), who spend their days in goth garb and obsessing over their own deaths. The story is set into motion when Ginger's first menstrual cycle coincides with being attacked by a mysterious beast. Soon after, Ginger notices several changes, such as hair appearing in places that they weren't before, wild mood swings, and a revved-up sex drive. However, these changes are not merely the products of puberty-- Ginger is slowing being transformed into a werewolf, and becomes increasingly subject to murderous impulses. With her sister's condition becoming worse each passing day, it is up to the younger Brigitte to find a way to reverse the transformation, and she finds an unlikely ally in a local drug dealer named Sam (Kris Lemche of "eXistenZ"). All this while keeping everything under wraps from her 'Good Day Mary Sunshine' mother (Mimi Rogers of "Lost In Space").
With the script's subtext rooted in such sexually-charged material and executed with buckets of blood and gore, "Ginger Snaps" seems to have Canadian horrormeister David Cronenberg ("eXistenZ") written all over it. Interestingly enough, the film is actually the handiwork of director John Fawcett ("The Boy's Club"), working from the script by Karen Walton. Instead of re-treading the tired 'mad slasher' antics of most teen horror films or doing another rehash of a horror staple, Fawcett and Walton explore teenage sexuality, the alienation of adolescence, and even sexually-transmitted diseases within the context of the werewolf film. Throughout the film, the lycanthropic transformation that Ginger undergoes is effectively paralleled with the turmoil of puberty-- it is often difficult to say whether the biological changes, the emotional volatility, and the general confusion that Ginger experiences is the result of her raging hormones, her supernatural condition, or both.
However, in addition to setting up the fascinating subtext, "Ginger Snaps" is also very effective as a horror film. With Ginger's increasingly erratic and murderous behavior, there is a palpable level of tension permeating every scene, especially when Ginger doesn't even realize that she is no longer in control of her own body. Also, the film's more heart-stopping moments, such as Ginger's attack and subsequent 'infection', or the film's climax which has Brigitte trapped in an empty house with her ravenous sister, are executed with fast-cutting, dim lighting, and enough bone-crunching sound to keep the audience at the edge of their seats.
Two key reasons why "Ginger Snaps" works is because of the terrific work done by Isabelle and Perkins, who capably handle the significant transformations of their characters, providing emotional touch-points for the audience's sympathies. While Isabelle seems to have a lot of fun chewing up scenery with her character's increasing self-assuredness and carnal appetite, she is also able to convey the conflicting emotions that her character experiences because of these changes, making her a somewhat tragic character. Meanwhile, Perkins effectively handles Brigitte's transformation from a dour death-obsessed wallflower underneath her older sister's shadow to becoming the film's determined and gutsy heroine, a young woman who finally comes to understand the value of life.
After successful runs at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and the recent Los Angeles Film Festival, "Ginger Snaps" has opened up nationwide in Canadian theaters. Unfortunately, given the current tensions over school violence and the film's unabashed exploration of teen angst (including sexuality and suicidal ideation), it is doubtful that "Ginger Snaps" will be able to mount a theatrical release in the United States, which is a shame. With its subversive look at adolescent angst, black humor, and cautionary themes, "Ginger Snaps" is probably the smartest and most insightful entry in the short history of the teen horror genre, and surely not to be missed.