Thursday, July 6, 2017

Canadian horror

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2001)

I’ve cut down in the past few years on my movie-related reading, but I still get through enough that it’s hard for me to be truly surprised by a film. Even at the Toronto film festival, I’ve generally already read reviews from Cannes or elsewhere for most of the things I see – although admittedly I’m not as adventurous as I might be in my selections. But the other day, I was reading the latest issue of the British movie magazine Sight and Sound (which by the way, like everything, used to be better in the old days) and I was amazed to see that the film’s lead review, its “main attraction” for the month, went to Ginger Snaps, a recent Canadian film just opening in the UK.

Overlooked movie

I certainly knew about Ginger Snaps, and I knew it had received generally positive reviews, but somehow it had never occurred to me I might actually go and see it. It’s hard to say why. I don’t think it’s much of a title, and the trailer made it look like Carrie 3 under a different name. But perhaps it’s also that since Ginger Snaps hasn’t opened in the US yet, I was missing the background whirr of publicity and discussion that almost subliminally generates a sense of a film in one’s mind. Maybe if the Canadian cultural mainstream had got behind the film as it does with, say, an Atom Egoyan project, it wouldn’t have mattered as much. I’m sure I’ve read more about Egoyan’s next film Ararat in the Canadian press than about Ginger Snaps, and the thing doesn’t even come out until next year.

Sight and Sound described Ginger Snaps as a “sparky, sharp film marked by intelligent dialogue and a complex view of that moment when girls hover on the brink of womanhood but would rather not take the next step.” This endorsement succeeded for me where Eye and Now had failed, and I went to see the film – fortunately still playing at the Carlton – the next day. And the thing that occurred to me quite early on is now seldom I see horror movies nowadays (there’s no point pretending Ginger Snaps isn’t squarely within the horror genre), and if I see them at all, they belong either to the world of low-budget digital video or to that of high-concept special effects.

Ginger Snaps reminded me of the experience of watching something like Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark in 1987 (I’m not sure I have a much more recent example) – it loves the fact that it’s a horror film, but doesn’t allow that to usurp the considerations of theme and character, and it has an authentically gritty, intimate feeling to it. It feels like a real movie. And the fact that it’s Canadian, of course, is all the better. Egoyan and Cronenberg and Lepage are all great – well, half-great at least – but Canadian cinema will never achieve critical mass without a solid base of viable genre movies.

Horror movies

Ginger Snaps is about two outcast teenage sisters, living in an unidentified, bland Canadian suburb – they do the gothic thing, take faked snuff photos of each other, and have a suicide pact that’s supposed to kick in when they’re sixteen. Ginger, the older of the two, is bitten one night by an unidentified beast that’s been slaughtering the local dogs. Her scars heal mysteriously quickly, but then they start to sprout thick hairs. Ginger develops some powerful instincts she’s never had before. She grows a tail. And, on the night all this starts, she gets her first period, causing some ambiguity over what’s a symptom of what. The second sister hooks up with a local drug dealer who’s into mythology and tries to help her figure out a cure, but meanwhile Ginger is mutating out of control, and infecting the neighborhood as she goes.

A few weeks ago, for reasons that are rather obscure, I received a DVD of the Stephen King film Cujo as a gift. I’d never seen it, and it turns out to be entertaining enough, but it seems very much like an adaptation of a novel in that it’s full of unresolved, disconnected plot strands that surely wouldn’t have existed in a screenplay created more autonomously. I haven’t read King’s book, but I’m guessing that the encounter with the rabid Cujo must have served there in part as a metaphor, as a mode of resolution for the various traumas set up earlier. The movie comes over as forty-five minutes of stilted personal travails resembling outtakes from a daytime soap opera, followed by forty-five minutes of a crazy dog. The second half at least is well staged and quite suspenseful, but the overall shape of the film didn’t make much sense to me.

Positive images

I’m just mentioning Cujo because it’s the last example I saw, but this messiness seems to be pretty typical of the genre. Ginger Snaps is unusually integrated and cohesive, whether measured by its preoccupations or its plot. I thought the movie was at its best when at its most energetically allusive – juxtaposing menstrual blood with that of Ginger’s victims; or dramatizing how she swings between fear and revulsion at what’s happening to her, and fully sexualized divadom where she harnesses the beast and struts her stuff. Her sister  - starting off even less well-adjusted than Ginger – subtly matures through the demands of coping the crisis, setting up a neat counterpoint in rites of passage. And their mildly deranged (in the sense that yours probably is too) mother, played by Mimi Rogers, trying hopelessly to embody a positive image for the kids, contributes a witty portrait of the future that’s at stake.

Katharine Isabelle makes a terrific centre for the film as Ginger – she really commands the screen. Ginger Snaps isn’t perfect though. Too much perhaps is made of the anonymity of the Ontario suburbs – things have a rather under-populated, unspecific feeling that at times takes events too far toward abstraction. And it seems to me that the film ultimately turns into too much of a pure monster movie, leaving several interesting strands unresolved, although not to the extent of Cujo. Maybe this is something no horror movie can avoid, however smart it might be.

Which leaves me with the mild guilt of having discovered the year’s most enjoyable Canadian film only by virtue of a British magazine. Well, I’m viewing that as a learning experience. But maybe I should resubscribe to some of that other stuff I canceled.

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