Ginger Snaps II: Unleashed
Female desire, that most elusive of beasts, gets a gory re-examination in Ginger Snaps II: Unleashed, the sequel to the 2000 Canadian culty horror that linked lycanthropy with puberty. The original film received a big marketing push but had trouble finding a North American audience in theatres; it did better overseas, and found more of a niche on DVD and video.
Like all good sequels, Unleashed reimagines the concept of its predecessor and features a largely different cast. This is partly out of necessity: at the end of the first film, Ginger Fitzgerald (Katharine Isabelle), the suburban teen who turned into a werewolf after being bitten on the night she got her first period, was dead after a struggle with her sister, Brigitte (Emily Perkins). Brigitte was also infected with the werewolf’s blood, but had found a way to fight the transformation with injections of an herbal infusion called monkshood. Though
Isabelle appears as a ghostly presence in Unleashed, the film belongs to Perkins, as she battles to avoid her sister’s fate after she’s mistakenly incarcerated in a drug-rehab facility by administrators who believe the monkshood to be some kind of new narcotic.
Perkins, a slight and quiet woman who looks far younger than her 26 years, gives a mighty performance as the tortured, teenaged Brigitte. It’s a complex role, full of suffering and silences, and with Ginger gone, Perkins has to carry the film alone — a tough assignment, given the prickly nature of her character.
“Any time you’re forced to identify with a monster, or when the monster’s an empathetic character, then it’s going to be subversive, because you have to be critical of the mainstream in order to go into that marginal character’s mind,” says the Canadian actor in a recent interview at a Toronto hotel. Perkins gives short, tentative answers to more general questions about the film, but on the subject of the script’s gender politics, the former UBC women’s studies majorsuddenly becomes voluble. “Inevitably, maybe subconsciously, you’re being critical of mainstream values.”
While Ginger Snaps was played in a key of suburban gothic, Unleashed serves its gothic straight-up, choosing for its main location a crumbling hospital full of abandoned corridors, creepy nurses and the sound of slamming doors. It is directed by Brett Sullivan, who edited the first film, and his background pays dividends in crafting a well-paced horror whose slick, exhilarating action sequences are a significant improvement over the original.
Unleashed’s main focus has shifted slightly, too, away from the notion that menstrual cycles bring out girls’ inner beasts to explorations of drug addiction and female self-mutilation. Brigitte needs to shoot up in order to keep her wolfishness at bay, and to track how quickly her transformation is occurring, she cuts herself and makes meticulous notes about the healing process, inevitably bringing to mind women who self-mutilate to release their emotional pain and anorexics who keep diaries detailing their food intake. As Perkins explains, this switch in emphasis is due to the way the two sisters’ different characters lead them to deal with their metamorphoses.
“I think Brigitte’s been more successful in repressing her body, and repressing its desires, than Ginger was,” says Perkins. “Ginger kind of embraces [her transformation] and has fun with it. But you’re encouraged to sympathize more with Brigitte because she’s so good at repressing her desire; she’s so successful at it that maybe she doesn’t even have her period — I mean, it’s not mentioned, right? Who knows if she ever got her period. That doesn’t play into it at all. She’s less of a horror because she represses it, and Ginger’s more horrible because she accepts it.”
The bond between Ginger and Brigitte was the emotional core of Ginger Snaps, and Unleashed’s script is poorer for its disappearance. Instead of being under her big sister’s spell, Brigitte takes on the mantle of older sibling with Ghost (Tatiana Maslany), a 14-year-old girl who is supremely articulate and observant but whose moral compass is swinging wildly out of control. When another werewolf begins stalking Brigitte at the hospital, she makes her escape with Ghost to a cabin in the woods. While the dynamic between the two girls works up to an offbeat charm, Maslany is a disappointment in the film, giving an unnecessarily mannered, even campy, performance that clashes with Perkins’ raw naturalism. Their retreat to the wilderness and the final showdown with the wolf, both at the door and inside Brigitte, has the feel of a fairy tale — the old-fashioned, bloodthirsty kind.
“In a way, Ghost represents the fantasy of having just girls — being able to escape the patriarchy, to have the two of us in our fantasy world,” says Perkins. “But ultimately, that’s not realistic — that’s a monstrous dream, too.”
The werewolf that comes after Brigitte provides the film with much in the way of traditional thrills and chills, but it also serves a deeper, metaphorical purpose that is left open to interpretation. Perkins’ explanation is that “it exposes the fact that teenage sexuality and the female body is constructed from the outside, something that’s imposed on the body from the external world. That’s what the stalking werewolf represents.”
Unleashed is also deeply preoccupied with hunger, and symbolically illustrates the dilemma of teen girls in a society that sends a message that appetites are bad: that is reluctant to allow girls to admit to powerful sexual desire (Britney dancing in a school uniform does not count as powerful), or give in to natural appetites like hunger for food. Brigitte’s dilemma, put simply, is the same one as a woman denying herself dessert: if she gives in to desire, her inner beast, where will it lead her? Will one piece of cake lead to two, to 10, will she become fat and horrifying? Can she have sex without losing all control, being branded a slut? Ginger, from beyond the grave, explains to Brigitte how “it starts with wanting”; desire comes first, and if it’s not repressed and controlled, will burst out into something gruesome. Perkins concurs with this assessment, saying that “it gives [girls] a vocabulary through story to think about their own situation.
“I think that young girls just want to see that reflected — the horror of the whole thing. How am I going to choose to deal with my own personal infection? With puberty? I think girls appreciate having that reflected, rather than always seeing girls in horror movies as sexual objects and victims.”
Brigitte’s struggle, both with the cruel characters who surround her and with the alien creature inside of her, would seem to put her into the victim category, but Perkins seems uncomfortable with that assessment. “She’s both — she’s a victim but she fights it.”
By Catharine Tunnacliffe