What It Feels Like for a Girl (Part 1)


So far, most of these movies have followed the Wolf Man tradition and dealt with male werewolves.  Today I'm going to look at a pair of radically different films that place women in the the fore.  The werewolf mythos has made much of the theme of male aggression in the past, but these both recontextualize the tales in uniquely feminine perspectives.


In The Company of Wolves - 1984
Written by Neil Jordan & Angela Carter
Directed by Neil Jordan

I have to apologize right off the bat for the inadequacy of my ability to discuss In The Company of Wolves in as thoughtful a manner as it deserves.  I'm going to need to see it at least once more before I really get a grasp on just what the hell is going on here.  The film plays on more than one level and is dense with symbolism.  I can't imagine that that's all meant to be clear before one can approach it with the perspective of having seen the complete story arc, given the revelations involved.

Director Neil Jordan is still most often referenced with The Crying Game, but looking at the body of his work reveals a strong and recurring attraction to the supernatural and the imagination, which, of course, are facets of the same gem.  He's made films about vampires, ghosts, selkies (something of a were-seal in Irish legend) and here, werewolves.  Themes of transformation are also recurrent in his work, whether the mystical or the gender related.  Probably the most frequent element of all in his films is the consideration of sexuality, particularly its role in identity.  In this, Jordan's second film, all of those aspects of his directorial tastes are on full display.

This is also the second of at least nine times that Jordan has used Stephen Rea, who has done at least three werewolf movies in his career.  I don't really have a point here.  I just find it interesting in a trivial way.

The majority of the movie takes place in a young adolescent girl's dream, building up to a distinctly original reinterpretation of Little Red Riding Hood.  Now I, for a long time, have been considering the psychological, symbolic and sexual connotations of the LRRH story, but whatever I'd considered, it's clear to me now that Angela Carter had been there, written a thesis about it, then moved on to even larger considerations and implications.

Within the dream, Rosaleen's sister has been devoured by wolves; an inherent risk for "straying off the path."  Following this event, her grandmother shares with her various tales of the dangers of wolves (often while knitting for her the red shawl that she will come to wear proudly in a world of muted tones).  Over the arc of the narrative, Rosaleen goes from meek child to budding young woman, and the appeal of straying off the path grows, and the lure of wolves becomes more seductive.  Obvious parallels to sexuality are only the beginning.  There's almost certainly something about independence and identity in there too.

None of this is to suggest that you need to watch the film as part of a women's studies curriculum, mind you.  I'm sure it's perfectly possible to enjoy the movie at face value and chalk up recurrent symbols to the fingerprints of cinematic auteurism.  Visually, In the Company of Wolves is lush and beautiful, filled with stimulating imagery that needn't have meaning to be enticing.  A bird's nest filled with eggs that reveal baby figurines inside can simply be strange and surreal without symbolizing fertility, which is merely a guess on my part.

As for the werewolves, Jordan approaches them from both ends of the spectrum.  On the one hand, we have a lot of just plain wolves running around in places, although the wolves are being played by Belgian Shepherds here.  On the other hand, we have some pretty disturbing and explicit werewolf transformations, particularly the one involving Stephen's Rea's character.  The effects aren't quite as high-end as American Werewolf's or even The Howling's, although I found it to be better thought out and even more unnerving than the latter.

It's never really a distinctly scary movie, but Jordan creates such a compellingly surreal atmosphere that conveys an appropriate sensation of dreaming.  There are different kind of dreams, and some of them convey a growing sense of undefined danger and dread as they go through their paces, visiting both seductive and unnerving imagery as they lure us in.  That's the kind of dream that Jordan and Carter craft for us here.  While the overarching narrative isn't necessarily the most compelling story when taken at face value, In the Company of Wolves is a completely unique werewolf movie with more than its share of moments and ideas all wrapped in gorgeousness, which more than earns the repeated viewings it's going to take to really digest it.

Ginger Snaps - 2000
Written by Karen Walton & John Fawcett
Directed by John Fawcett

The makers of Ginger Snaps have some female oriented observations about the werewolf mythos as well, although they approach them much differently.  Key to its development is the observation that both adolescent girl and werewolves are subject to a bloody "monthly curse."

Ginger and Brigette Fitzgerald are morbid pair of Canadian sisters.  At 16 and 15 (respectively) neither one of them have yet gotten their monthly friend, a fact which is of considerable concern to their busybody mother who listens more to parenting manuals than she does to her daughters.  Between their over-engaged mother and their disengaged father, they have made a pact with each other than they will either get the hell out of Nowheresville, Ontario ASAP, or come to a drastic end trying.  In a school filled with hollow mundanity, their escape and identity is rooted in their outsider status.  Ginger is the smart-mouthed and aggressive one who balks at attention from boys.  Brigette is the silently plotting brains of the team who not-so-secretly covet Ginger's strength.  Their roles and relationships to their family, school, classmates and each other are summed up neatly with a class photo project in which they depict themselves in a variety of possible suicide scenarios.

At the precise moment when Ginger first gets her period, one night in the park, she is attacked by some sort of feral beast that drags her into the woods.  Brigette helps her to flee, and the beast is hit by a van driven by the local dope dealer.  Previously inseparable, the changes that these events trigger in Ginger will become a growing wedge between them, in a way not dissimilar to the changes that all adolescents experience.  Except this one goes to eleven.

Suddenly Ginger becomes dramatically hormonal, sprouting hair where she never had it before (never mind that it's coarse and grey, growing from the bite marks on her shoulder) and the attention of boys is more than welcome.  Brigette, meanwhile, is desperate to both save her sister from the condition about which she has growing suspicions, and to keep Ginger from leaving her behind.

Getting right to the point; Ginger Snaps is my favorite werewolf movie, period (no pun intended).  Ginger and Brigette are strongly developed characters that would be enjoyable to watch no matter what the story vehicle.  I would watch them in any variation on the high school movie, whether or not there was a monster involved.  This is due not merely to the writing, but to the powerful performances from the film's two lead actresses; Katharine Isabelle (Ginger) and Emily Perkins (Brigette).

The first time I saw Ginger Snaps, I declared (to an empty room, but still out loud), "Oh THAT girl's gonna be a star" in reference to Isabelle.  Nevermind that she's beautiful.  She exudes the same kind of magnetic "cool to hang out with" appeal that has worked so successfully for Jennifer Lawrence.  Months after watching the Ginger Snaps films (more on that later), I was watching a movie called American Mary, and without realizing that I was watching the same actress, I declared to the empty room, "Oh SHE needs to get famous," only to realize once I jumped online that it was Katharine Isabelle again.  Purely in the interest of science, let me be clear, I had not made this declaration at any point in between, and I don't run around making it about every pretty face I see.  Isabelle plays Ginger with enthusiasm, making her antisocial behavior all the more appealing.  The humor and personality with which she fills Ginger overflows in such way that you realize it's bigger than the role.  She's certainly a working actress, but Hollywood hasn't yet given her the vehicle that would really put her into orbit.

Absolutely none of this raving is intended to take anything away from Emily Perkins.  It's certainly Ginger that steals the show, but it's Brigette that carries it.  While Isabelle is tasked with the slow-motion explosion of an adolescent girl coming unhinged as she turns into a werewolf, Perkins is the one that has to hold it all together while Brigette feels her world falling apart.  She really becomes the lone protagonist and draws us close to see how she has to become her own person in the face of this cataclysm.  The role calls for range, and Perkins delivers it.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is Mimi Rogers as the girls' mother.  Several of the most laugh-out-loud hilarious moments come from her highly satirized portrayal of suburban parenting.  When the girls end up with too much blood on their hands (literally), Mom steps up with a plan to rescue them.  She's just a mom that cares, you guys!

The third act is a high tension race against tragedy, and it's here that Perkins is most clearly called upon to carry the film.  Once Ginger fully transforms, it's Brigette that we connect with and root for.  This does, however, bring up one of the less satisfying aspect of the film.  The final werewolf isn't all that we might have hoped for.  I'm not faulting the director for choosing to go the practical effects route, but the final wolf form looks kind of diseased and mutanty with wispy hair and wet, soggy flesh like a drowned and bloated molerat.  I'd be more concerned about it touching me than biting me.  Fortunately, the film isn't reliant on giving the werewolf a lot of screen time.

My only other complaint is a selfish one.  The funny parts are so funny and the sisters so personally appealing that I wanted more.  The blessing there is that Ginger Snaps attained enough cultish success to inspire a duet of sequels.  For more about those, come back tomorrow!

No comments:

Post a Comment