The modern fairy tale can be a tricky genre to pull off. Usually, a director or writer will choose to do a very postmodern take on an old story and the result can seem a bit try-hard such as Red Riding Hood (2011) or Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which turned Hansel and Gretel into trite action hero types. Ginger Snaps, while not ostensibly based on any known fairy tale, is still a successful example of this genre mainly because it knows when to stick to its roots without taking itself too seriously.
Written by Karen Walton & John Fawcett (with Fawcett also directing), Ginger Snaps follows two sisters who are obsessed with death and the macabre while sharing a strong, familial bond. The film starts with Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) staging elaborate gory deaths (impaled on a fence, run over by a car, etc.) and taking photos for a slideshow presentation in class. The teacher is shocked, while their classmates (mainly boys) cheer rowdily. It seems their presentation has struck a chord until one boy, Jason (Jesse Moss), yells that he wants to see the photos of just Ginger. While Ginger is only about a year older than Brigitte (who skipped a grade), she is also more physically mature, and, the first to enter womanhood, so to speak, when she gets her first period.
Already, we get the bones of a really good, primal fairy tale. Fairy tales in their original form were hardly meant for children. The stepsisters in Cinderella chop off parts of their feet to fit into the glass slippers. The princes who came to see the Sleeping Beauty were killed by the thorns surrounding her castle. There is also often an underlying current of sexual jealousy between almost any two women in these fairy tales, most likely because they were told from the point of view of men and, of course, these stories originated from patriarchal societies. Ginger Snaps has both sex and violence in spades, which aligns it very well with these fairy tales. Though admittedly Ginger’s getting bitten by a werewolf (the Beast of Bailey Downs) because it was attracted to her first period is a really on-the-nose metaphor for emergent adolescent sexuality, Ginger Snaps embraces it wholeheartedly rather than try to be subtle.
To be fair, Ginger Snaps is often a bit cheesy and awkward. The dialogue sounds like it is written by much older adults trying to sound young and cool. Other than the two leads, the other characters are stereotypes. One girl that bullies both sisters remarks at Ginger’s newfound promiscuity, “So sluts run in the family. Quelle shocker.” The one actor who kind of nails balancing a broad, comic performance with a serious one is Mimi Rogers as their mother. We get the sense that the issues that these girls are dealing with must have come from their mother, who has a rather interesting take on how to cover up the eventual killings that Ginger commits as she slowly becomes more feral.
The strongest aspect of Ginger Snaps has to be the characterization and the relationship between Brigitte and Ginger. While Emily Perkins was actually older than Isabelle by four years, she plays the younger Brigitte very convincingly as an insecure and moody teenager who wears baggy clothes because of a lack of confidence about her body. The transformation that Ginger undergoes is also brilliantly done. Instead of a simple makeover into a “hot girl,” we get hints of her impending transformations, such as strange hairs on her body. The makeup work by Paul Jones is top-notch in this respect and Fawcett should get credit for insisting on practical effects and prosthetics, even if it meant that Isabelle had to undergo hours and hours of makeup transformation for many days. The makeup doesn’t really go for verisimilitude because, well, no one actually transforms into a werewolf in real life, and also, because Ginger Snaps works best when there’s enough to entertain a more figurative reading, which extremely realistic makeup wouldn’t necessarily have allowed for.
Despite Ginger Snaps’ sometimes broad and comic tone, the breaking apart of these girls’ sisterhood and friendship is played realistically. Ginger accuses Brigitte of being jealous of her and for holding her back from being her true self. Brigitte’s attempts to cure Ginger of her lycanthropy read as a desire from a younger sibling to get their relationship to the way things were. The screenplay by Walton & Fawcett sets up their relationship quite capably. While both girls had been obsessed with death and the macabre at the beginning, it is Ginger we see playing dangerously with a knife, passing it perilously close to her own wrists. We also spend a lot of time with them as just very weird sisters. Ginger protects Brigitte from being bullied and shields her from some of the more aggressive male behavior. This time spent with them allows us to understand their closeness before Ginger’s transformation, which only makes their eventual rift that much more poignant.
Ginger Snaps balances several tones all throughout the movie, and some times the results can be uneven. Ginger’s seduction scenes of the dumb boys are mostly played for broad comedy that undercuts some of the drama between the two sisters. But one can argue that Ginger Snaps mirrors high school and adolescence quite well. Sometimes adolescence is scary, but it’s often absurd and those two extremes often coexist in almost every interaction during that age. Yet Ginger Snaps also manages to be a really primal fairy tale that beautifully illustrates the bonds of sisterhood and the growing pains of emergent sexualty and womanhood. Though Ginger seems to be ultimately punished for her transformation, she is also resplendent in her savagery and the boys (and most of the girls) around her are no match for her power.
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