A few years ago, we were all taken surprise by a low budget Canadian horror film called GINGER SNAPS. On first glance, it would have appeared to be a last ditch attempt to cash in on the slasher lite craze of SCREAM and URBAN LEGEND. But although there are those who would disagree, GINGER SNAPS turned out to be much more complex, much more intelligent and much more frightening than any of us expected. For my money, it is one of the greatest werewolf films ever made. Who would have thought that this tiny little film would have rapidly evolved into a trilogy, much less one culminating in a prequel period piece? Nevertheless, that's exactly what happened and GINGER SNAPS BACK: THE BEGINNING allegedly brings everything to a close.
The set-up for this film may catch fans of the series off guard. The film takes place in 19th century Canada, but who should we see walking into frame but Brigitte and Ginger (Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle, respectively)? They are sisters here with the same names, but it is unclear whether they are related to the Brigitte and Ginger of later installments. They are the only survivors of a shipwreck which claimed the lives of both their parents. This time out, they both have their own independent spirits. But Ginger, who is the older of the two, seems to be more inclined to take a leadership role here. Brigitte must lean on Ginger for comfort when she is informed of their parents' demise, although Brigitte also takes the initiative later in the film.
Brigitte is injured and with the help of a Native American hunter (Nathanial Arcand - DREAMKEEPER), they take refuge at a Trader's Post. The inhabitants of the post are not thrilled to see them. They have a rule against allowing any insiders within their gates. Everyone is tired and weary. They have been waging a losing war against a group of werewolves in the woods. The commander is barely holding the fort together, still grief stricken over the apparent murder of his wife and son. The pastor is a fire and brimstone spouting psychotic, more apt to damn than to bless. There is a racist favorite son of the group who supports slaughtering all of the Native Americans for sport. As for the rest, they run the gamut between tired, desperate and flat-out nutty. As Ginger so aptly puts it after a great extended dinner sequence, "These people are fucked."
The two sisters debate whether it would be safer in the forest or locked up with this group on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. But whatever their plans are, they quickly become null and void when Ginger is bitten by one of the werewolves. One would expect the film to take a similar turn as the original GINGER SNAPS here, with Ginger growing more mature and distancing herself from her sister. But that's not the way things work out here. Instead, Brigitte and Ginger both try to cover up the affliction while searching for some way to reverse the process.
Something that is notably missing this time out is the mature themes of the original GINGER SNAPS. It was a fairly obvious bit of subtext in the original that Ginger's growing lycanthropy was a metaphor for the onset of puberty - when hormones rage, personalities change and young girls begin seeing the world in a new light. Having satisfactorily mined that idea in GINGER SNAPS and to a lesser extent in GINGER SNAPS II: UNLEASHED, the afflicted Ginger is much more conscious of the consequences of what she is becoming. She at first tries to deny the change and stop it before it goes any further. Then she develops a greater fear that whatever she is turning into could harm people, most notably Brigitte. The entire change is handled completely different this time out and the threat is looked at through different eyes than before.
Which is not to say that GINGER SNAPS BACK is still worthwhile. While the story could conceivably be a rehash of the original with a few corsets thrown in, this is a decent prequel. It is surprising that the two concluding chapters of the trilogy were shot back-to-back and yet each one feels completely fresh. Emily Perkins, who with or without fur always looks like she's about to bite someone, is still great in the role of Brigitte. She plays things much more traditional here, choosing to take on an authentic 19th century virgin role. Katharine Isabelle purposely speaks in modern tongue to draw a sharp contrast between the two characters. If anything, Isabelle has grown more comfortable in the part and after only appearing in a few scenes of UNLEASHED, fans will be happy to know Ginger is in the spotlight again.
Each of the three films in the series was handled by a different director, although all three directors have worked on all installments in another capacity - Grant Harvey was 2nd Unit Director on GINGER SNAPS while UNLEASHED's Brett Sullivan served as editor. This has allowed each installment to feel in some way completely different than the last while still retaining the same sense of horror and suspense contained in the original. Each of the films is entertaining and somewhat original, and neither one seems to be made with the sole intent of turning a profit. In fact, GINGER SNAPS BACK feels so different from previous installments, that despite the loose tie-in, it could stand as its own film. Unlike UNLEASHED, you don't need to be familiar with the original to enjoy it.
GINGER SNAPS BACK is beautifully shot. The cinematographer, Michael Marshall, works in conjunction with the production designer, art director and costume department to create an atmosphere that not only feels historically authentic but also captures the magic of the unknown, something very important here. Harvey shoots some sequences with a fluid motion and others with some inspired handheld work not often seen in a period piece. When the time comes for dream or fantasy sequences, the results are truly stimulating.
The main complaint I have about GINGER SNAPS BACK is that the film itself should have been longer. Period pieces such as this lend themselves to a longer running time. But at just over 90 minutes, this one feels a bit lean. Not that we're looking for DANCES WITH WEREWOLVES here but the an extra fifteen minutes could have done wonders in fleshing out the story somewhat, particularly how Ginger and Brigitte react to the stressed out residents of the trading post.
It's such a relief that both of the GINGER SNAPS follow-ups have been solid, entertaining films, even if they could not match the original. I do hope the series ends here however. It seems like we have approached their story as much as best we possibly could. From the disturbing endings of the first two to the satisfying explanation of THE BEGINNING. Ginger and Brigitte have effectively run their course. But it sure was an enjoyable ride.