Mary Mason (Isabelle) is in her final years of med school training to be a surgeon. Despite talent and intelligence, her future hangs in the balance as she struggles under mounting debt, forced to work menial jobs that interfere with her studies and condescended to by an arrogant surgical tutor. Unable to even cover her phone bill, Mary is desperate to bring in some cash and attends a sleazy audition to waitress at a strip joint. Charmingly, she brings her full resume along, as if the nightclub manager cares that she is a trainee surgeon.
As chance would have it, club owner Billy (a credibly sleazy performance by Cupo) has sudden need of a surgeon due to some very grim business in his basement. Mason is desperate enough to do anything for five grand, but emergency trauma surgery was probably not what she was dreading. She flees the scene a little richer, but extremely shaken and returns to her relatively normal life. However, her actions have attracted the notice of one of the club’s dancers Beatrice (an incredible performance by burlesque performer Risk). Beatrice is part of an underground body modification community and has connections to others willing to pay a lot of money for, let’s say, unusual procedures.
Through Beatrice, Mary meets a new client and makes so much money for a single operation that her financial woes are over for the near future. Her new-found wealth does not pass unnoticed by the senior surgeons observing her residency. Their misogyny and arrogance lead them to make certain assumptions about her, assumptions that lead to events that obliterate Mary’s "normal" life and lead her to seek refuge in the surgical fetish subculture.
Written and directed by the "Twisted Twins" Jen and Sylvia Soska, American Mary is a major advance on their debut feature Dead Hooker in a Trunk. Always visually striking, the film has the lush and saturated neo-noir look of prime David Lynch (great credit is due to DP Brian Pearson). Body modification as art is not a fanciful idea – it very much exists in the art world. French artist Orlan is known for transforming herself through plastic surgery. Founder member of industrial group Throbbing Gristle, Genesis P-Orridge, was engaged in an art project with his late wife Lady Jaye in which they were using body modification to gradually become a pandroginous entity (a project detailed in the documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye). Add in to this heady stew the explorations of gender, abjection and the noir sensibility of Cindy Sherman’s art, and you are approaching the tone and style of American Mary.
Extreme fetish imagery first broke into the mainstream of horror in a big way in Clive Barker’s seminal Hellraiser, but since then it has become more and more diluted, to the point that it is now quite normal to see it boringly employed by multi-platinum-selling metal and pop bands wishing to look “edgy”. The Soska sisters make it fresh again, partly by the surgical fetishism theme which is unlikely to be replicated in Milan fashion shows anytime soon, but also in the film’s striking post-feminist themes.
While American Mary has its fair share of gnarly slicing and reconfiguring of flesh, it is not really as concerned with being gory and disgusting as it is with being sexy and alluring. The initial strangeness and repulsion that Mason feels upon encountering the members of the subculture quickly fades away. Initially as it supplies much needed cash, but later when horrific events in "normal" society damage her, it becomes empowering. The audience is presented with two options, to either leave the theatre or to go with this. The Soska sisters do not at any point present the subculture of extreme body modification and its participants as negative or evil. The movie is not only non-judgemental, but actively positive. This feels like genuinely transgressive stuff.
Outside of two key scenes, Mason is completely in control. Isabelle (best known for Ginger Snaps) is fantastic in the part; Mary is extremely sexy, but in charge and channelling her sexuality to her own ends. Before entering the subculture of body modification, she is seen as barely engaged with society. We see no friends, we see no family. Her relationships in the mainstream world at the start of the film are with men who abuse their positions of authority. The only exception is the distant grandmother she loves, and who is her sole anchor in an indifferent normal world.
This is a horror film, so it is right to ask: where does the horror lie? Mary’s initial experience in the strip club that opens up her very left-handed path is certainly horrific. The initial approaches of Beatrice with her very particular enhancements is a slow reveal and quite creepy. But it is surprising how quickly one becomes accustomed to these characters and the way they have appropriated and mutated sexualised images of womanhood to their own ends.
The real horror of American Mary is firmly rooted in the normal world, and the patriarchal and hierarchal structures of the medical community which sees Mary as a thing to be abused and, if they can get away with it, used. The movie functions on a metaphorical level as a indictment of the America dream. Mary is forced to extreme lengths in the pursuit of a goal unaware that gender and social bias are stacked against her. The authority figures in her life are surgeons who feel their ability to save life has granted them permission to treat others with contempt. Mary is forced to compromise herself in the pursuit of … what exactly? Money? Status? Power? When we are shown the corrupt heart of the surgeon’s masculine club, it becomes clear that no matter how skilled she becomes, Mary is never going to be granted entrance to it except as a plaything. Instead she finds acceptance, success, and a level of notoriety and fame in a reviled, illegal, subculture. This is an interesting film to screen at FrightFest with a new assembly of Clive Barker’s NightBreed as both are films that find beauty in what society deems monstrous, and fear in society’s aspirations.
The film’s subject matter is going to be repellent to some, so this is not a film for everybody. Viewers expecting a straightforward narrative may find issues. The film has nothing that resembles a three-act structure. The initial third has a strong forward drive, but it becomes almost a series of connected vignettes (one of which features Jen and Sylvia Soska in quite possibly the best director’s cameo I have ever seen). That is the kind of thing that those with rigid requirements for plot structure will latch onto and decry as poor writing. Frankly, I’d be happy to see every screenwriting manual in the world stacked high, doused in petrol and set alight.
I may have made this sound like a dry academic exercise best suited to a gender studies class, but far from it. This is a great-looking film, with excellent performances and a wicked sense of humour. American Mary is a rarity, an original horror film – hold it close and cherish it.