Welcome back to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you what you could be watching instead of scrolling through better forgotten memories of your past on the internet. Because let’s be real here, most of us end up spending entirely too much time on social media and when we do that, inevitably we end up either looking at a picture of ourselves from a million years ago or having certain platforms remind us of certain days that we maybe would have preferred stayed buried forever, thank you very much. Those of us who are of a certain vintage (to use a fantastic euphemism for being old that I stole from the excellent Cat vs. Bat podcast) might take comfort in the idea that when we were teens, the intertubes was barely taking its first baby steps towards the grotesque monster it is now and thus, we are immune to having our unflattering, unpopular, incredibly dated photographs plastered all over our memories like an overzealous relative showing off pictures books to a first date. Joke is on everyone though because those pictures are uploaded on the regular and no one is immune from feeling the cold sting of being brought back to a time when you were an an angsty, awkward, self conscious teenager who felt like an alien in your own skin whom no one would ever take seriously. And for some of us, thinking back on those unpleasant, hormone fueled days is indeed pretty horrifying. In celebration(?) of this, and also because it’s got some of the best claustrophobic scares I can think of, tonight we’re going all the way back to Bailey Downs to cover the excellent Ginger Snaps.
I can’t speak for kids of this coming generation but back when I was in school, it was still a very popular sentiment to assure teens that high school was “the best times of your life”. I do believe it was the great horror master himself, Stephen King, who once questioned this baffling statement and I can’t say I disagree with his objections to it. High school was then and I would be willing to bet probably still is a very strange time in most kids lives to put it mildly. For a lot of teenagers, it’s an uncomfortable time and if you’re not one with the popular crowd (or not welcome in any crowd), it can be a veritable hell. If we’re being completely honest about the world of teenagers, when we strip away the whole children are our future and the brighter sentiments about how they will carry the torch for the next generation and all that stuff we don’t really believe, we have to face down a reality that isn’t pretty: Kids are assholes. That’s not to say that all kids are assholes or that they are walking, breathing mistakes all the time, but idealistic kids don’t exist. Real teenagers are often maligned by older generations for the simple reasons that they are stubborn and rude and belligerent and all those other things that don’t conform to that wholesome idea of what kids are supposed to be like. There can even be the odd complaint that back in the day, kids had more respect and were just better than they are now. I assure you that this last part is bullshit because no matter what time frame you are from, you can count on teenagers to be willful, defiant and sometimes they can be exceedingly cruel, especially to other kids.
Bullying has existed in all forms forever and to say that it’s reached an epidemic level now is simply not paying attention to how kids actually operate. The simple thing that you can gather from most bullies is that they will always zero in on anything that doesn’t conform to the world around them that makes them most comfortable. The kid with the wrong color skin for their liking can be a target just for being there. The kid who brought something weird for lunch once will get to remember their culinary faux pas forever. The boy who wore a pair of pants with a tiny tab on the back that was the wrong color will hear about it for months. (That really happened to a select few people I knew in Junior High.) The girl who wore a shade of pink lipstick that someone didn’t care for will be subject to an entire day’s worth of comments whispered behind her back until she goes to the bathroom and removes it, never to wear that shade again. (That happened to yours truly.) There’s a reason that we set so many horror movies in high school and it’s because kids are constantly on the verge of becoming a social pariah, usually subject to being tormented for anywhere from a week to years. When you constantly have to watch what you say and do to keep in step with others and make sure that you don’t become a target, it can feel a bit more like being stalked or haunted by an invisible force that is just waiting for the chance to make your life absolutely miserable. And to make everything even more fun for everyone involved, puberty happens and no matter how much you conform or try not to, you’re going to end up getting singled out for something anyway. And nothing helps you relive the horror of these days like a film that accurately captures exactly how uncomfortable and unforgiving that time in your life can be. In Ginger Snaps, we have a film that focuses on not only the treacherous territory of being tormented for being an outcast, but also deals with one of the least talked about but always effectively horrifying experiences for girls growing up, getting your first period.
Horror is one of the only genres where menstruation is actually brought up and covered in any capacity and I would argue that this is because it marks a very uncomfortable and, a lot of times, gross transition for girls. I’m sure that other genres that I don’t actually watch or care about have tackled this topic as well, but it’s rare that it gets any screen time and that it’s not coated over with a kind of artful language that denies what the experience is like. In Carrie, we have the infamous shower scene in both the book and the film(s) where we see the gross, unfiltered reality that getting your period isn’t romantic nor is it always well timed. I’m going to put it out there that most girls aren’t going to have an audience shouting “plug it up” to a sobbing, shivering kid who’s convinced that she’s dying the first time they experience their first period, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s gone through menstruation who hasn’t had the super fun experience of bleeding through or having a pad slip or having a heavy flow that ended up showing on a nice light pair of pants. Trust me, the humiliation of having everyone know what’s going on can make you feel just as vulnerable as poor Carrie White and I assure you that your stains won’t go unnoticed. And let’s not forget about poor Bev Marsh in It, both in the films and the book, who lives in fear of getting her period. I have my own theories on what Pennywise really represents, especially in the 2017 film, but in this case, no matter how you look at him, he’s the only thing in Derry that is unrelenting in showing Bev the inevitable truth that she will grow up and the transition for her will be marked in blood and it’s something that she doesn’t understand, has no say in the matter and will be painful. These are important examples because they showcase something at the core of Ginger Snaps but this film had the guts to try to tackle these fears in a completely different way by incorporating a genuinely female point of view through it all. (I give props to Stephen King still for writing about menstruation because while I still feel that he did justice to the horror of it all, there’s only so much he can tell you about an experience that he’s, presumably, never had.) With that, let’s get into what this film is really about and how it goes about tackling menstruation.
This film doesn’t waste any time getting to business. The movie opens with reports of mystery dog attacks that fall on deaf ears as we get introduced to the two sisters who are the heart and soul of this story. Ginger, played by Katherine Isabelle, is the older sister and both protector and antagonist to her barely younger sibling, Bridgett, played by Emily Perkins. The two death obsessed girls are mostly devoted to each other, making a pact to get out of Bailey Downs together or die trying, but it’s clear from the start that Ginger is the more aggressive decision maker and Bridgett is more often convinced to go through with her sister’s plans, sometimes to the point of just relenting to avoid confrontation. When a bully targets Bridgett and the adults around them are completely useless in preventing the misery that she’s intent on causing the younger of the siblings, the girls hatch a revenge plan on her sister’s tormentor. The plan goes awry when Bridgett tries to chicken out and their argument about it is interrupted when the creature responsible for the multiple dog deaths in the neighborhood shows up to attack them. The creature manages to seriously wound Ginger before Bridgett saves her and they escape. The creature’s reign of terror comes to an end shortly afterwards when it’s hit by the van of the local drug dealer, Sam, played by Kris Lemche. Just as all this happens, Ginger gets her first period and her transformation into womanhood, and lycanthrope, begins.
From here, the movie gets dark. Ginger’s personality begins to get just as warped and threatening as the transformations of her body. The body horror on display in this movie really pounds home the gross aspect and they don’t shy away from the suffering behind it. That said, Ginger isn’t dour or lamenting her new condition. Almost immediately, she shucks off most of the pretense of her connection to her sister and becomes more sexually and physically aggressive. Meanwhile, Bridgett becomes our guide as both a terrified spectator and budding werewolf wrangler as she searches for a way to save her sister from becoming a monster. Sam enters the picture as the only person that knows exactly what is happening and the only person who initially believes Bridgett, even when she herself and Ginger don’t want to acknowledge what’s happening. The stakes get even higher when Ginger accidentally passes the werewolf curse off to someone else and both she and the girl bully from the beginning become intensely jealous of all the attention Sam is paying to Bridgett. When the inevitable happens, Bridgett is forced to rely on her own intelligence and face down the toxic but still loving relationship that she has with Ginger. The results are claustrophobic, violent and devastating. It’s as gruesome as it is heartbreaking and the pay off is perfect.
I think what sets this movie apart from other horror films that have menstruation as a part of the plot is that this one is not only so core to the story but it’s also presented as almost a mockery of the reality versus the way that girls are prepared for this event in their lives. What makes this even more frustrating is that the girls are caught unawares in a lot of ways but it wasn’t for lack of trying to explain to them what was on the horizon. The sisters’ mother, played to comedic perfection by Mimi Rogers, has been preparing for their first period presumably since they were born. Her disconnection to what her daughter is going through is made obvious as she bakes a cake for Ginger’s special day, conveniently avoiding even mentioning the physical and mental changes that it brings. The problem is rooted in the fact that she couches it in the same language that you find in overly spiritual talk about what a period actually is. By contrast, when the girls approach the guidance councillor about what’s going on with Ginger, she gives them a clinical definition that is devoid of any hint of how she’s feeling. Both approach the topic in such vague, impersonal and ultimately useless terms that it leaves the sisters to try to figure out what the hell is going on with Ginger’s body on their own. There’s no better metaphor for menstruation than the werewolf in this case because it really drives home all the things that no one brings up. Your body is going to change shape and become alien, awkward and sometimes even grotesque. As mentioned before, the body horror of Ginger’s transformation looks and feels painful and disgusting and the makeup effects only enhance all the complicated emotions swirling around the two sisters as she changes and becomes more of what she is.
I should also mention that I really love this film for its complexity in its characters. The cast is excellent and everyone plays off each other perfectly, so much so that you can really sink into the film and no one really stands out. Katherine Isabelle shines, of course, but Emily Perkins is right there with her and both girls really do a lot to create the ugly but truly engaging heart of the film. Ginger isn’t necessarily a good character and her antagonistic tendencies really come forward even before she’s attacked but even then, there’s still a sense that she is connected to and loves her sister. In her case, she becomes the monster who still wants to have it all, including the relationship that she valued most, even after the werewolf curse tore them apart. Perkins’ Bridgett is also flawless in her portrayal of the terrified younger sister who seems forever to be lurking in Ginger’s shadow. For her part, Bridgett is the problem solver and throughout the film, it’s her attempts to be her sister’s keeper that really show the truth about the power dynamic between them. Even though the older of the two is the more dominant personality, when shit really gets deep, we see how much Ginger really needs her younger sister and how little Bridgett is aware that she doesn’t need Ginger. It creates a tangled and ultimately painful web for the two girls as they try to tease out how to save themselves from the reality that not only are they growing up but also growing apart. The end result forces Bridgett to face her biggest fear of standing on her own and when she has to do it against the one person she loves the most and has been her biggest antagonist, it’s all the more terrifying and heartbreaking.
And I should also mention that the rest of the cast around them are just as amazing and their roles are just as nuanced. It would be easy to fill this film full of red shirts and be done with it. Certainly, there are some people who are just there and some characters, like their mother, are meant to be stand ins for a bigger kind of conversation that they want to have. That said, no one really feels like a cardboard cut out. Even the school bully who comes after Bridgett arrives at their house in a scene that makes her vulnerable and exposed for just long enough that you get to see what drives her, if only for a second. The filmmakers didn’t have to add that layer of empathy or depth to a character that you could guess what would happen to her but the fact that they did tells you the quality of the writing.
And finally, let’s talk about the scares. I think sometimes when a movie deals with heavier or nuanced topics, it’s easier for the scare factor to get buried under the concepts. At worst, it can drown out the scares completely and make it a dull, pretentious piece of art house fluff that thinks that its bigger than it is. The other end of the scale, especially when dealing with the gross aspects of growing up, are that it can lean too heavily on the gag reflex. Both are possible but in this case, we hit the right balance. The thing is that neither of these things are a guarantee that it’s scary, however. That said, this film is fucking terrifying. The dark atmosphere and the creep factor start off right from the beginning and that sense of dread from the time that Ginger is bitten gets thicker with each scene. The climax is filmed in a small setting and the claustrophobic darkness that the characters are moving through is intense and genuinely scary as fuck. When the end does arrive, it’s a little short clipped but even that doesn’t bother me because the means to get there was such a thrill ride, I was just happy to breathe after.
This, to me, is a perfect Halloween movie. It’s got the autumnal atmosphere but it’s not cozy so much as dangerous. It’s a thinking piece but it never gets weighed down by the subject matter so badly that it forgets to be a horror movie. It’s got some fantastic gore effects but they aren’t just there for the sake of being there. And for me, the most important thing, it’s got a damn good story and good characters that makes me eager to see what’s coming next. I care about the girls at the centre of the story and I even care about what the side characters are doing too. If you’re looking for something that gives you the creeps and really delivers on the atmospheric horror, do yourself a favor and check out or revisit Ginger Snaps!
As always, thank you for taking the time to visit me here on the Friday Nightmare Reviews. If you’re itching for more horror stories while we wait for the next one, join me on Mondays for Hello Dolly, the serial stories about Dead Eye Dolly, a horror hostess and her monstrous friends who are trying to figure out how to deal with a world of monsters while putting on a weekly internet horror show. And with that, I hope the full moon doesn’t catch you unawares and may every dog you encounter be a good boy and not a hulking monster coming into womanhood.