Friday, January 21, 2011

Ginger Snaps Back

The ‘Ginger Snaps’ sequel and prequel were apparently filmed back to back, albeit from scripts by different writers and with different directors at the helm. I’m not sure at which point during pre-production someone said, “Hey, let’s make ‘Unleashed’ a gritty, institutional movie and ‘Ginger Snaps Back’ a costume drama,” but I wish I’d been a fly on the wall. I’d love to know how that idea got sold.

‘Ginger Snaps Back’ is a prequel in the way that Neal Stephenson’s ‘System of the World’ trilogy is a prequel to ‘Cryptonomicon’. There’s a thematic connection, but the two works are set centuries apart.

It’s some time in the 19th century and a depleted retinue of traders and British troops, along with their native Indian guide, are holed up in a fort besieged by – you got it! – werewolves. They’re awaiting the non-return of a party dispatched to secure provisions. No prizes for guessing that these poor unfortunates became provisions for the lycanthropes. Into their midst, seeking shelter and confused by the ramblings of a shaman they meet en route, come Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins).

Retaining the character names from the original was pretty much a given (they had to get the words “ginger” and “snaps” into the title, after all); however, this saddles ‘Ginger Snaps Back’ from the off with the stigma of being little more than an historically transplanted remake. Maybe this is why it gets the least love out of the whole trilogy. I have read precious few good things about ‘Ginger Snaps Back’. The general consensus is that ‘Unleashed’ is a decent stab at a sequel, while ‘Back’ is all but superfluous.

Good job, then, that I’m not afraid to take a minority opinion. For my money, ‘Ginger Snaps Back’ is a terrific little movie. A couple of flaws, sure – mostly notably in the occasional slide into contemporary dialogue and attitudes that belie the period setting – but a definite improvement on ‘Unleashed’ and worthy to keep the company of the original.

What the period setting achieves is a negation of the suspension of disbelief required to introduce a werewolf into a suburban Canadian milieu in ‘Ginger Snaps’. Folklore and superstition are writ large here. Ginger, in particular, is presented as a Little Red Riding Hood figure. Although the innocence associated with that fairytale character is soon savagely subverted. Ginger and Brigitte are warned by a shaman they encounter in the wilds to “Kill the child, save the sister”. Their next encounter is with a tracker (Nathaniel Arcand) in the pay of the British; a man seemingly at one with the natural world.

At the fort, an atmosphere of mistrust and a knife-edge tension prevail. The commanding officer barely retains command, while his right-hand-man presents as a human time bomb already down to the last few seconds. The surgeon, Murphy (Matthew Walker) devises a test to determine whether outsiders are infected with lycanthropy (which makes for a couple of tense moments reminiscent of the infected blood/heat experiment in ‘The Thing’), whereas the Reverend Gilbert (Hugh Dillon) revels in each new attack or loss of life, giving it some “judgement of the Lord” hyperbole with the hellfire and brimstone turned up to 11 at every available opportunity.

The Murphy/Gilbert science/religion schism recalls the science/animalism angle of the first movie (Brigitte painstakingly attempting to find a cure/Ginger embracing her newfound feral instincts), while the confined locale compares with the clinic setting of ‘Unleashed’. It’s pushing it a bit to suggest that ‘Ginger Snaps Back’ offers a synthesis of the two preceding films, but it certainly has a lot going on for a low-budget 90-minute horror film.

It also looks good for a low-budget production. Director Grant Harvey exploits the claustrophobic setting effectively, the slow-burn establishing of conflict in the traders’ and soldiers’ interrelationships makes for a powder-keg atmosphere, and the inevitable lupine attack is tensely built up to and impressively staged. Perkins’ characterization is much more interesting and watchable than the sullen, grungy anti-heroine that slouched through ‘Unleashed’ and it pretty much goes without saying that having Isabelle back in the spotlight helps things immeasurably.

As with ‘Unleashed’, the major sin that ‘Ginger Snaps Back’ commits is simply following on from such an accomplished and ballsy film as the original. Naturally it’s not as good as ‘Ginger Snaps’. How many sequels better the originals? Precious few once you’ve got ‘The Godfather Part II’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ out of the way. How many third instalments manage to keep the material interesting and seem essential in their own right rather than just part of a franchise? Precious few once you’ve got ‘Toy Story 3’ out of the way.

‘Ginger Snaps Back’ is a sadly overlooked and underrated movie. It’s ripe for rediscovery.


A.D. said...

Glad to hear that you like this one because I too think it's a much better film that it has any business being and I like it almost as much as the original (the first one has worn on me over the years). I've read some of those negative reviews and I don't see where the venom comes from. I think it works well as a "period piece", it looks fantastic, and I thought the supporting characters were great.

Neil Fulwood said...

I've gone back to some of those bad online reviews, and it's almost as if they saw a different movie. 'Ginger Snaps Back' has so much going for it: the period setting and production design excel the limited budget; as you say, the supporting characters are great - memorable and well fleshed out; and there's some brilliant set-pieces.