While he was in England in 1969 turning out a clutch of very cheap Gothic horror movies (and the artier Nightbirds), the Staten Island auteur Andy Milligan threw together something called The Curse of the Full Moon, which set out to do for werewolves what his The Body Beneath did for vampires.
Set in 1899, it features a typically Milliganesque hate-ridden, incestuous, corrupt and doomed family, the Mooneys, who fester in their old dark house as a horrific disease (lycanthropy) runs through their bloodline. Dialogue runs on and on, full of non sequiturs like ‘because of my age and my health, I decided to send you to medical school in Scotland’ delivered with authentic British accents by oddballs the director happened across in Soho.
Milligan, a one-of-a-kind filmmaker, was torn by self-loathing and inscribed his personal concerns in the lowliest throwaway project. Even if you can’t follow the plot or care about the people or raise a shudder at the amateur monster make-up, you can sense the ghastly conviction with which Milligan has his characters tear into each other verbally and physically. The depiction of werewolfery as a syphilis-like taint even resonates with his own later death from AIDS, though that was in the unimaginable future when this was being shot.
I’ve tentatively become a convert to Milligan as more and more of his films have become available, though he remains a hard sell to the uninitiated, and this is an entry in his filmography that even his most devoted fans don’t take a shine to. Jimmy McDonough, whose Milligan biography The Ghastly One is among the best books ever devoted to a marginal filmmaker, describes it as ‘by far the weakest effort from Milligan’s English sojourn’, though he notes the director’s presence in his only appearance in one of his own films as ‘a rather effete gun salesman’. Tame by the director’s standards, the film went unreleased until 1972 and it wins its place in this special issue against the director’s wishes since it was the distributor, William Mishkin, who insisted on a) padding out the under-length film with footage of rats, because Willard had been a big horror hit and put rats on the fright film map; and b) changing the title to The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!. The title is a master-stroke – it seems almost like a mantra, and conjures up a weird menace and desperation that no film could really live up to.
‘Why don’t you stick to your own species, Fitzenstein?’ spits out Trina Sinclair (Danielle Hampton), hockey star and archetypical teen movie queen bee. The object of her loathing is Ginger Fitzgerald (Katharine Isabelle), one half of a misfit duo of sisters, the deliciously acerbic anti-heroes of Ginger Snaps (2000). It is an interesting choice of language. Playing on the name ‘Frankenstein’, Trina characterises Ginger as a monster: a sub-human freak in the high school hierarchy. Trina does not realise how blackly comic her quip is; Ginger has, in fact, been bitten by a savage wild beast and is mutating into a blood-thirsty werewolf.
John Fawcett’s cult teen horror film uses the idea of mutation - both biological and sociological - to provide a witty and intelligent exploration of what it means to become and live as a woman in middle-class suburbia. Twinned in Victorian boots, plaid skirts and over-sized overcoats, the fuzzy-haired Fitzgerald sisters - Ginger and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) - are cast as mutants in the homogenous world of Bailey Downs, a fictitious Canadian town of pristine picket fences and sports pitch triumphs. The sisters deviate from the norm, not only in their Gothic fashion choices but also in their biological development. As their mother tactfully remarks in one of several awkward family dinner scenes, ‘the girls are three years late menstruating - they’re not normal’. With their young, hollow-eyed physiques, the girls are scorned and ostracised by their classmates. Director John Fawcett emphasises the sisters’ alienation by framing the actresses in large empty shots - crossing suburban landscapes or on the fringes of sporting events. But far from wanting to fit into their high school (‘a mindless breeders’ machine’), the pair has embraced their mutant status. They take comfort in being ‘united against life as we know it’; and their intended escape route is a joint suicide pact.
When we meet the sisters at the start of the film, they are idly discussing the best way to enact their plan. ‘Wrists are for girls,’ sighs Ginger, ‘I’m going to slit my throat’. Immediately the dissatisfaction with being a ‘girl’ is flagged up as a central theme to the film. A montage of photographs follows as the credits begin, each showing the sisters meeting their ends in a variety of sticky ways, brought about by the domestic world they hope to escape. There is a dead body in a refrigerator; another under a lawnmower; another impaled on a garden fence. The Fitzgerald girls clearly abhor the idea of turning into a stereotypical housewife. The sisters’ mother, Pamela Fitzgerald (ably played by Mimi Rogers), provides a vision of that future with her seemingly prim conventionality and household routine. ‘God, I hate our gene pool,’ Ginger later moans after yet another fractious encounter. The girls are presented as aliens within their own family.
When the photographic sequence fades to a classroom, we become aware that the photographs were staged for a school project, entitled ‘Life in Bailey Downs’. The male teacher murmurs his response - ‘I am completely sickened by that. Wasn’t I? Mmm?’ - as a male student asks if they can see the pictures of Ginger again. Clearly the shots of death did not have the desired effect. The sexually predatory nature of men and male attitudes towards women are recurrent features of the film and explored during Ginger’s mutation into aggressive werewolf.
It is no coincidence that Ginger is bitten by the wild beast on the night of her first period; as she becomes a woman in the eyes of society, she also transforms into an animal, unable to control her body and urges. As alien observers of the ‘total hormonal toilet’ of high school, the girls want to avoid these biological changes at all costs, offering a variety of preferred diagnoses for Ginger’s back pain (‘maybe it’s cancer of the spine?’ ‘Or tuberculosis?’); and when it is finally clear that Ginger is menstruating, she expresses her anger at the transformation (‘God, I mean, you kill yourself to be different, then your body screws you over’) while the female adults in the film - the girls’ mother and the school’s guidance counsellor - offer only glib sentiments of encouragement (‘congratulations, sweetie!’) and advice (‘play safe!’).
After the attack and the onset of puberty, Ginger is increasingly sexualised, not only in her behaviour but also in the eyes of those around her. As she gains more male attention, the film gives a nod or two to the standard teen movie transformation with shots of Katharine Isabelle striding down hallways with newly-dyed hair and figure-revealing clothing; but the subversion of the usual ‘boy meets girl’ plotline creates a feminist critique of standard rom-com stereotypes and reveals a much more sinister side to male-female relations. Rather than a mere attractor of attention, Ginger becomes an aggressor and instigator of sexual activity - a social faux pas in the restrictive world of Bailey Downs. The object of her lust, high school student Jason McCardy (Jesse Moss), is blind-sided by Ginger’s sexual dominance: ‘You lie back and relax,’ he tells her before asking ‘hey, who’s the guy here?’ [SPOILER ALERT] Ginger is not willing to adopt the submissive role prescribed: ‘Who’s the guy here?’ she angrily retorts before lunging at him and taking some blood-curdling bites (she is a werewolf after all!). [END OF SPOILER]
The aftermath of losing her virginity is equally messy as the act itself, both physically and emotionally. As she returns to Brigitte covered in blood and vomiting, Ginger speaks of her dissatisfaction: ‘I get this ache and I thought it was for sex but it’s to tear everything into fucking pieces… It wasn’t what I thought it would be - there was all this squirming and squealing and then he was done and you’re like â€œOhâ€.’ Ginger explains to Brigitte, the younger and less experienced of the sisters, the way that women are portrayed after sex: ‘He’s a hero and I’m just a lay, a freak, a mutant lay.’ The woman is seen as the alien other; an inferior object, which men can stereotype and dismiss.
This dialogue may sound unsubtle but Ginger Snaps is not simplistic in its message. As the plot progresses and Ginger’s mutation becomes complete, the film presents more nuanced effects of a male-dominated society. [SPOILER ALERT] One side effect is competition - the once-close sisters turn on each other (‘Poor B, I’m obviously growing up and you’re not’) and Ginger kills her love rival, Trina Sinclair, in a savage and comic attack in the Fitzgerald kitchen. After the killing, Ginger realises that the misogynistic system may have its advantages: ‘Look, no one ever thinks chicks do shit like this… We’ll just coast on how the world works.’ Their mother’s reaction to discovering the murder also reveals an interesting dimension to her Stepford Mom character. By contending that they should fake a fire in the house before going on the run, Pamela reveals her dissatisfaction with the role she has been assigned and her willingness to break free: ‘We’ll start afresh, just us girls. It’ll be fun.’ She highlights the difficulty of being a mother in society, predicting that both the girls’ father and the wider community will blame her for creating and bringing up murderous daughters. [END OF SPOILER]
While her mother voices discontent, Ginger embraces this unequal, competitive world and her new-found power, sneering at Brigitte as her peers once did: ‘I’m a goddamn force of nature. I feel like I could do just about anything. I feel almost like we’re not related anymore.’ She has now grown distant from Brigitte and fully mutated into a monstrous werewolf. The transformation (and film) ends bleakly. The sisters, once united in their mutant status and close, have become alienated from one another and the only equal and caring male-female relationship in the film has been destroyed. Perhaps Ginger Snaps aims to tell us that such a relationship is not possible once a girl becomes a woman and a sexual being. Perhaps Brigitte behaves as she does because her sister had transformed into a product of a society that they had hoped to avoid. Ironically, Ginger’s mutation (both natural and supernatural) brought her more in line with the norm than her previous mutant existence.
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