When talking about werewolf films, it’s easy to fall into the recurring theme of male characters entering into their plight with existentialist problems, told through the lens of the lycan sub-genre of horror. More times than not, werewolf films focus on the body changing horror through the eyes of men and that is one of the many elements that sets director John Fawcett’s 2000 werewolf classic GINGER SNAPS so far apart from what we typically see. Subverting the expectations of werewolf films before (and after), GINGER SNAPS takes the werewolf film and transports it into a personal story of two sisters going through puberty and pain, all while dealing with the horrific aftermath of a lycan attack. With Fawcett’s film turning 20 this year, we thought we’d touch on not only the film, but the personal touches writer Karen Walton contributed to what is, in this writer’s opinion, one of the greatest werewolf films of all time. Buckle up!
Born from an idea Fawcett had involving two sisters battling a werewolf, GINGER SNAPS’s origins begin with a stroke of seemingly bad luck. Having a car malfunction, director Fawcett needed a place to stay and when a mutual friend recommended letting him stay in a place inhabited by Walton, the pair of the Canada based Alberta Film Institute students (CUBE director Vincenzo Natali was also a fellow student) began telling each other the various projects and ideas they were each working on. Liking what Walton brought to the conversation, Fawcett asked the screenwriter to collaborate on his werewolf idea and the duo was soon running towards the goal of getting GINGER SNAPS made and into existence. Seeing eye to eye on the direction of the film, the duo’s first mandate was to remove the “magic” from werewolf films, instead trying to make their film more grounded in reality, as much as it could be. Instead of curses and so on, GINGER SNAPS would be based more in a virus-like infection being passed from wolf to human, something that prior to Fawcett’s film, was lacking from the sub-genre. Inspired by the work of fellow Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, the duo began developing the film in 1995/1996, a good few years before cameras rolled, making sure their script and approach was a fine tuned one. Inspired more by films like THE FLY and CARRIE than THE WOLF MAN, Fawcett and Walton also wanted to make sure one thing was loud and clear: Boys would not save the day in the film. GINGER SNAPS was to be 100% a story about sisterhood, the changes young women go through and the pains of growing up. The breaking point in developing the story was found in the revelation that female menstrual cycles were related to lunar cycles, something that leaped out as far as utilising that part of the girls’ story in a film about body changes and horror.
When the production moved to the casting process, the filmmakers were met with a large amount of opposition, being the horrific Columbine Massacre happened right around the time the script went to casting agents. Soon, GINGER SNAPS was blacklisted from most casting agencies, newspapers ran stories about how much the film was going to be in poor taste and the hill to climb to get the film made seemed to grow and grow. Eventually, Fawcett and Walton broke through that wall and found their cast, including two up and coming actors to play the film’s crucial characters of Bridgette and Ginger. Deciding on Emily Perkins (Tommy Lee Wallace’s IT miniseries) and Katherine Isabelle (AMERICAN MARY, TV’s Hannibal) to fill the shoes of the outcast siblings, the film came to life, bringing two sisters obsessed with death and gloom into existence and giving horror lovers fan favourites for years to come. Between the audition process and actual filming, Perkins had cut her hair quite short, so she was tasked with having to wear a wig throughout the entire film, giving Bridgette and long head of hair, mostly in her face for the film’s running time.
When it comes to the film itself, there’s a lot to chew on in GINGER SNAPS. We meet our duo when they are staging fake death scenes for photos, the obsession with death and oblivion is alive and well, right from the get-go. Taunted by classmates and preyed on by a group of boys, the sisters are social and academic outcasts, relying on their bond for each other as the only real relationships they have. Looked down on by their parents, deemed the weirdos by those around them, Ginger and Bridgette follow a pact to die together at all costs and that pact and bond is one that radiates off the screen. As a viewer, you believe in Ginger and Bridgette and when the duo are attacked by a wolf-like creature one night, you feel for them. We then follow the sisters as Ginger begins to act in a way not typical of how she usually is, becoming more seductive to the boys who catcalled them to no end prior to the attack and becoming quite violent against the bully who teased them. What we then see, is Ginger slowly becoming someone else, via the slow transformation into a werewolf. As Ginger becomes sexually active and confidant in the power she’s holding over those who looked down her prior, there’s a slow severing of the bond between Bridgette and herself.
The steadfast, nothing will come between relationship we see at the beginning of the film begins to crumble, as we get into GINGER SNAPS, because as the title suggests, Ginger begins to lose her humanity and exhibits a thirst for blood and violence. Bridgette befriends and confides in Sam (Kris Lemche), a loner who tries to help, but as the mandate put down by Fawcett and Walton suggests, boys do not save the day this time, and Bridgette realises that she’s the only one who can stop her sister, as painful as that may be. The fractured bond between the sisters in painful to watch, as they only have had each other their entire lives. Their mother (played by Mimi Rogers) doesn’t understand them and their father is just there, so as the film goes on and Ginger and Bridgette begin to lose that connection, there’s panic and confusion that comes to them both. Will Ginger become such a monster, that she’d attack her sister? Will Bridgette be able to put her sister down, if Ginger does get to that point? These are questions that we as viewers ask ourselves time and time again, as the story plays out in front of us.
As grim as the film can be, GINGER SNAPS is full of performances that ooze playfulness and you can tell that not only Perkins and Isabelle, but the entire cast had a blast with this one. Jesse Moss (EXTRATERRESTRIAL) does a good scumbag in the film, playing Jason, a predatory boy trying to get in Ginger’s pants. When he finally succeeds at just that, Ginger attacks Jason and we end up getting one of the most memorable sequences in the film, when some short time later, Jason loses his stomach in very literal ways. The practical approach to the film’s effects is impressive, when we finally do get a full werewolf transformation, we’re given something we don’t see often: a werwolf that looks like and actual wolf. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments, when Ginger begins to show the half woman/half wolf look, but when the infection fully takes over, what we see is a creature design that really shines.
What makes Fawcett’s film so unique, is that it really takes the werewolf film and makes it a metaphorical look at how painful puberty and self discovery can be for someone experiencing it. Going through such profound changes in your life, where you don’t know what’s happening to your body and you don’t know who you are anymore affects every teenager and GINGER SNAPS has a way of showing that, through the horror lens. On the surface, it’s just a fun werewolf flick, but there’s so much to latch onto, sub-textually, that a viewer looking for something deeper can walk away completely engaged as well. The periods of reckless abandon that go hand in hand with growing up and becoming your future self are front and centre in this one, Walton’s writing is so authentically pure, that you can’t help but to see your younger self in Bridgette or Ginger, making the film feel like a personal exploration of the time in your life, when you didn’t quite recognise yourself in the mirror. Those important moments in life are touched on so eloquently, that there are times where you forget you’re watching a film about a werewolf, and GINGER SNAPS begins to feel closer to a coming of age film about two sisters losing their bond.
The story of GINGER SNAPS doesn’t stop when the film wrapped production either. After making its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the movie was almost acquired by Fox Searchlight, who would buy the film, if it was edited down to a PG-13 rating, cutting out the sexuality and language of the film, going for more of a teenage WB-like approach. Walking away from that deal, Fawcett and Walton made a small deal to release GINGER SNAPS in the U.S. and Canada on DVD, thinking the film’s story would come to an end. Some time later, a repertory theatre in New York expressed interest in screening the film for a fall festival it was doing and New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell wrote a rave review of the film, leading to a deal with HBO and making GINGER SNAPS a very popular film on the cable channel. Soon after, horror fans began noticing the flick and it quickly became a staple in the werewolf sub-genre.
There’s a reason GINGER SNAPS has stood then test of time and twenty years later, horror fans are either discovering it for the first time, thanks to an exceptional collector’s edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory or retrospectives written about the film, or revisiting it. A film that breathed new life into a type of horror film that had grown quite stale over the years, what Fawcett and Walton crafted was a movie that allowed its viewers to not only be entertained, but caused them to remember what it felt like to be on the outside of what was popular, what was liked and how painful it was the go through the changes of puberty. Having daughters myself, GINGER SNAPS is a film that I can’t wait to show them, when they’re of age, it’s really a great look at how a young woman s to literally shed parts of herself thanks to biology and it brings that personal horror and monthly pain into a genre film that also never quite scoffs its nose at having fun with the premise. The best horror films can take a plot and its themes and highlight its subtext without taking itself too seriously and GINGER SNAPS is that kind of movie. A wild ride, full of imagination, outside the box thinking and enough potential to spawn two sequels (2004’s GINGER SNAPS: UNLEASHED and GINGER SNAPS : THE BEGINNING, where Isabelle and Perkins play 19th Century versions of the characters…yeah, I know), John Fawcette’s film shows what can be done when you want to reinvigorate a sub-genre of horror and you do it with brains and ingenuity.
While most horror fans will cite AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON or THE HOWLING as the best werewolf films of all time (with good reason, they’re bonafide classics), GINGER SNAPS belongs right beside both of those films. It’s a smart look at sisterhood, growth and finding yourself, all with large doses of carnage and blood, thrown in for good measure. Plus, how many films have lines as epic as “I’d rather be dead than be what you are”?!
Words: Jerry Smith