It’s day two of Horrortoberfest and even though I randomly determined which film I was going to watch, apparently I am starting a sub theme of killer ladies. American Mary has been on my radar for some time but I never really got around to seeing it. I assumed when I first read about it that it was going to be another “torture porn” type film in the vein of a Hostel or Saw. Watching the movie, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film was far less interested in the idea of making you watch people get cut up but, rather, the ramifications of the cutting.
The movie has our titular Mary as a bright and hardworking surgical student that is also struggling to get by. Answering a craigslist ad for a seedy strip club to work as a “masseuse” ends up getting her for more money than she expects when she is asked to use her surgical knowledge on a guy for the owner of said club. This ends up with her eventually falling into doing some “questionable” cosmetic surgery for large amounts of money. The surgery is interesting as it is a woman that wants to become like a living doll; not just in that she is proportioned like a Barbie but that she also wants to become de-sexed. This is the only time the movie lingers on any sort of nudity but it is a very meta-desexualization of the standard horror movie t&a since it is a very sterile and clinical removal of the very thing that the gaze is centered on. We are not made to think this woman is in any way crazy but instead wishes to no longer be a sexual object while retaining core femininity.
This increase in funds makes her instructor automatically assume she has begun sex work of some kind. The immediate juxtaposition of that with the earlier surgery scene is a great commentary of men seeing women as inherently only having worth, socially and monetarily, as it pertains to sex even though Mary is a brilliant surgical student and the patient was a wealthy clothing designer. This leads to probably the most horrific thing in the movie which isn’t a murder or a torture scene but rather the drugging and rape of Mary. She attends a party where the surgeons at the hospital are having some kind of sex party. Her instructor then apparently thinks that since she has gone into prostitution, he has the right to do whatever he wants with her. This act is what both breaks Mary and causes her to become more determined than before.
She gains her revenge against the professor by practicing any and all extreme body mod surgeries on him. The movie doesn’t linger dwell on the actual cutting or wallow in gore the way other films might but instead pans away because it isn’t about the pain she is causing but rather, like the rape, it is about the power that she holds over him. The next scene we see Mary has successfully started a body mod business out of her own apartment. Rather than portray her as a psychotic slasher, the movie instead shows how getting her revenge was actually used to further her own career. Rather than having a downward spiral that ends in her becoming some kind of serial killer, we instead get the story of a woman that is using her talents to keep herself together after a traumatic event. In fact, there is only one scene in the entire movie where she ever really “goes crazy” when she beats a guard to death when he stumbles on where she is keeping the still alive body of her old instructor as a practice dummy.
I was not surprised to find that this was written and directed by women, Jen and Sylvia Soska. It has a refreshing way of presenting what could have been a terrible blood and tits horror story in someone else’s hands. The main actress, Katherine Isabelle, was also the lead in Ginger Snaps which is another one of my favorite female-centric horror films and she does a great job of deadpanning while still having deeper emotion below the surface. The writing, directing, and acting all come together to make Mary a figure that is frightening not because she Is evil or supernatural or insane. Rather, she is a terrifying figure because she is so calm and rational and powerful that you end up being able to sympathize with her throughout the whole movie even as she begins seeking ways to lash out at people with her scalpel.
In all, this was a fantastic movie and perhaps made all the better after yesterday’s terrible heap of garbage. There is still plenty more I could talk about, such as the ending of the film being a metaphor for the theme of the movie, but I don’t want to spoil everything. Overall I would give the movie a 4.5 out of 5 and am actively interested to see what else the Soska sisters have done.
Favorite part of the movie: The conversation Mary has with a bouncer where he convinces her that she is doing good work.
Least favorite part: While not anything in particular, the movie is odd because it feels less like a horror film and more like a strange drama with a couple scattered bloody scenes.