Friday, August 2, 2013

American Mary: Sexy, Insane, Surreal, Feminist Body Horror

Canada's Soska Sisters, Jen and Sylvia (also known as the Twisted Twins), burst onto the film scene in 2009 with their sardonic exploitation debut Dead Hooker In A Trunk. The writer-director duo have since continued to splatter the festivals red with a series of well-received shorts, and last year's feature-length American Mary, starring Ginger Snaps' Katharine Isabelle as the titular heroine. In a genre dominated by male screenwriters and directors, the Soska Sisters are blazing a trail for a new brand of scream queen, and doing it in stilettos, no less.

Mary Mason is an extremely bright but timid surgical student, finishing up her coursework and soon to go into her residency and begin a promising career in medicine. Financial desperation leads her to peruse the same online ads many young women are drawn in by, offering plenty of cash for the small price of one's self-respect and modesty. But Mary's 'interview' to become a dancer at the Bourbon A Go Go takes an entirely unexpected turn when the club's bouncer brings in a bleeding man who will die without immediate medical attention. Unwilling to take the man to a hospital, club owner Billy offers Mary five-thousand dollars to stitch the man up in the basement, and Mary hardly hesitates before agreeing.

Recovering from the previous night's harrowing experience in her apartment, Mary is then visited by another of the Bourbon's employees, the otherworldly Beatress, who has paid thousands of dollars to discrete surgeons to be made in to a living Betty Boop. Beatress entices Mary to a veterinary clinic after hours with the promise of a couple grand easy money, where she reveals her mission to help a friend, Ruby Realgirl, become as anatomically incorrect as a doll. Mary complies, earning a tidy ten-thousand, and returns to her residency shaken but more determined than ever to begin a successful surgical career. But all that is derailed when her mentor, Dr. Walsh, invites her to a surgeons' party that is not what it seems. Mary is brutally sexually assaulted by her own professor, a Dr. Grant, and returns to the Bourbon A Go Go disillusioned with the medical world, and plotting a grisly revenge.

There's no doubt that American Mary is not for those with weak stomachs. This is skin-crawling body horror at its finest, but with strong themes of female power and sexuality that make it unlike anything David Cronenberg could come up with. Is Mary Mason the first 'strong female character' in the horror genre? Of course not! Despite being mostly a boys' club, the horror genre has produced plenty of female heroes, final girls, and villains over the years worth writing about. What sets American Mary apart is the fact that we see a strong woman whose fate has been written by women, and is as flawed and complex as a real woman would be. Is Mary an intensely ravishing sex symbol? Absolutely. But not in the sense that female sex symbols are typically cast by male directors. Mary's character is strongly sexualized throughout the film, but not because she is objectified by the men of the story. Mary stands in a position of strength and power above the men in the film, from those who she punishes for doing her wrong, to club owner Billy who holds her in his mind as a paragon of untouchable femininity.

The film also plays in a more surreal realm than most mainstream horror, injecting elements of the bizarre one by one into Mary's world until the whole thing has unraveled. We get a strong sense early on that something is not right with the professors and doctors at Mary's school, such as an early scene in which Dr. Walsh describes to Mary 'the adrenaline rush you get when you slice into a human being...' The sinister undertones of these respected surgeons reach a zenith when Mary arrives to the strange party and meets a Dr. Black, who will reveal nothing about himself. She is then taken aside by Dr. Grant, who tells Mary some of Dr. Walsh's more disturbing proclivities. By then, the drug in Mary's drink has taken its effect, and it is too late to change her own fate. As the film goes on, more and more of Mary's former life erodes, and is replaced by the strange characters of the body modification world, from living dolls to the Twins (played by the directors themselves) who wish to exchange arms surgically.

Yes, American Mary is a touch gory. But with the film's surgical subject matter, one can't say that the Soska Sisters go over the top. Key scenes have all the building tension of films denounced as 'torture porn,' but without the grisly and overblown effects of unnecessary violence. Many of the most gruesome parts happen off-screen, and are aided by beautifully subtle sound design. The slicing and tearing off flesh off-camera has a much stronger psychological effect than buckets of Karo syrup on-screen would.

The Twisted Twins have a lot to offer the ever-changing horror genre. Fascinating, three-dimensional characters inhabiting bizarre fantasy worlds make for a much better film all-around than a slasher chasing victims around for ninety minutes, or extended scenes of torture meant to make you shut your eyes. That's not to say this one doesn't offer plenty of well-appointed gore - I tried eating lunch while watching this one and instantly regretted it.

As of January, American Mary is in wide release on DVD and Blu-Ray.

1 comment:

  1. I thought the gore was quite restrained in American Mary considering what a bloodbath Dead Hooker in a Trunk was. I also liked how all of the characters in the film subverted the expectations we have based on their looks or their occupation. I like how you describe Mary and how the Soska sisters wrote her: sexualized in a positive way and flawed, like an actual person.