Starring Emily Perkins, Tatiana Maslany, Eric Johnson, and Katharine Isabelle
Directed by Brett Sullivan
Released by Seville Pictures
There are spoilers ahead but in the sense that I refer to some events from the first film.
“Don’t you just love the sound of nature?” – Ginger Fitzgerald
A steadfast, however morose, relationship collapses. A unique bond that had grown to withstand irksome parents, oblivious school faculty members, and fellow classmates degrades over the course of a lunar cycle for a pair of sisters. For young Brigitte Fitzgerald, everything came crashing down when she drove a simple kitchen knife into the sternum of her lycanthrope-infected sibling. It was a heartwrenching act of survival and pity that not only fucked up Brigitte’s life (she was left infected herself) but it signaled the conclusion to one of the finest werewolf films the genre had unpredictably happened upon in nearly a decade.
Many fans I chat with tend to think that the testosterone-fueled Dog Soldiers (2002) touted the modern return of the werewolf film; in truth it was John Fawcett’s grim, suburban tale Ginger Snaps (review) that delivered the genre a stinging bitch-slap upside the head in 2000. And while some unfortunate individuals have yet to catch up to this stellar gem (I pity you, really), the Snaps saga is moving on with a new chapter, this one aptly subtitled Unleashed. Given the first film’s lackluster Canadian theatrical run it’s a surprising maneuver to inject money into another installment, nevertheless, it was a damn fine decision. Unleashed has proven to be a beast of a different breed; it’s fiercer, darker, and far mangier than its predecessor.
The time passed between the bloody events of the first film and the start of our new journey with Brigitte in Unleashed is undetermined, although we gather it hasn’t been long. Brigitte’s now on her own, living out of motels, and suppressing the lycanthropic virus that flows through her bloodstream by mainlining monkshood (wolfsbane); it’s a squirm-inducing process to watch that’s not exactly easy for her either. Contrary to what was initially believed in the first Snaps, this monkshood concoction is no cure for what threatens to utterly consume Brigitte from the inside out, but it does a damn fine job at holding it at bay. Lately, though, the lycanthropy is catching up. This is made evident in Brigitte’s journal where she logs the results of her “healing factor” based on self-inflicted slashes across the forearm. To make matters worse, she’s being pursued by a fully-transformed werewolf driven by that forever primal instinct to mate. Her situation may be screwed and Brigitte may look like shit but that sarcastic, droll, and frightened little girl still resides within her fragile, weary exterior.
On a wintry night, Brigitte becomes swept up in a moment of panic that eventually lands her in the confines of the Happier Times Care Center: a shelter doubling as a medical facility for troubled women. In the eyes of the faculty, the environment is a seemingly ideal place for Brigitte. What they don’t understand is that her problem is way beyond their comprehension and that locking her up within the sterile walls of this rehab clinic is the exemplification of containing a wild animal in a cardboard box. Brigitte’s going to want out. And unbeknownst to the residents of Happier Times something on the outside is eventually going to try to get in.
Despite my previous expectations, Unleashed isn’t the “ensemble piece” (ala Girl, Interrupted) that I imagined it would be. Scribe Megan Martin, in for original Snaps writer Karen Walton, straddles a focused narrative path to ensure that this is a film about Brigitte, her own grueling bout with the transformation (which incidentally, doesn’t progress as glamorously as Ginger’s did in the first film), and coping with the emotional baggage of losing her sister. The playful, macabre innocence and vulnerability she once had is a thing of the past.
Amongst the wicked black humor, there’s a much more overt veil of sexuality layered into this chapter too. The film, again, has its share of male predators like Tyler (“Smallville’s” Eric Johnson), an orderly who abuses his power at the clinic by trading drugs with the female patients for sexual favors. An intense moment of “group masturbation” will make you stand up at attention (that’s right, female group masturbation). And it’s hard to overlook the fact that Brigitte is running from a creature that intends to get it on with her, read into that little nugget what you will. Oh sure, the werewolf-in-heat plot device was similarly used in the direct-to-vid, Kane Hodder vehicle Darkwolf but comparing that film to Unleashed is like offering someone the choice to drink a shitty watered down beer or a deep, rich vintage wine that’s got a playful taste that’ll knock you drunk on your ass after a single glass.
Unleashed never loses sight that the first film worked because of its finely-tuned, nuanced characters, and here, it offers us a few new ones all the while remaining faithful to Brigitte’s dry, lovable demeanor. Janet Kidder’s Alice Seversen, who heads up Happier Times and serves as the film’s only adult, is a disappointing substitution for Mimi Roger’s upbeat Mrs. Fitzgerald. On the other hand, Tatiana Masley’s portrayal of the energetic misfit, Ghost, comes dangerously close to stealing the entire show. A young ‘un with an affinity for comic books and equipped with an active imagination, Ghost takes to Ginger and acts almost as the “new sister”. It doesn’t compare to the energy that bounced between Isabelle and Perkins in the original Snaps though. Speaking of Ginger, I wish I could say more about Isabelle’s return other than its a restrained performance. Why she’s back is something you’ll just have to discover for yourself.
Like the blood connection that binds the Fitzgerald sisters together, Unleashed’s similarities to its predecessor lie deep. On the surface, however, its a grisly horror show. The photography (supplied by two cinematographers) efficiently drains any and all warmth from the snowy locations. Every shadow must be feared. An experimental and jagged industrial score by Kurt Swinghammer keeps you just off kilter. And, there’s a dark, mean-spirited underbelly to the plot lying in wait to expose itself in the last third. Homages, intentional or not, are prevalent. There’s a nod to Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos and the girls acquire a knack for making boobytraps like Nancy in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. If there’s anything to complain about the film it would have to do with the unanswered questions the story poses. Is the werewolf that pursues Brigitte a transformed Jason McCardy from the first film? Brigitte stuck this horny wolf-in-the-making with monkshood back in her hometown of Bailey Downs, so without a steady injection of the juice available, has Jason turned completely? And just what is Ginger doing in this film? Perhaps she’s stuck in limbo as was Griffin Dunne’s character in An American Werewolf in London, or maybe she’s just a figment of Brigitte’s now damaged subconscious.
Regardless of those minute questions, the stars aligned properly with the full moon for this one, folks. Ginger Snaps II: Unleashed doesn’t allow the bloodline, started in the first film, to thin. Instead it nourishes the budding franchise with its continued odd take on lycanthrope lore. I know there is a prequel on the way, but I can say in all honesty, if the right creative forces came together I wouldn’t mind seeing a chapter that picks up where Unleashed jaw-droppingly leaves off.
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