Jen and Sylvia Soska’s 2012 film American Mary is a highly original horror film that flew under the radar on it’s original release and is ripe for rediscovery (or maybe just discovery).
Written and directed by the self-styled ‘Twisted Twins’ Jen and Sylvia Soska, 2012 body horror film American Mary represented a major advance on their 2009 debut feature Dead Hooker in a Trunk. A film of immense promise, the Soska Sisters have struggled to follow it up with only 2014’s unwanted slasher sequel See No Evil 2 and prison action flick Vendetta in 2015. However, a remake of David Cronenberg’s Rabid (an apparent passion project) has just found financing from Shout! Studios.
In carefully cultivating a semi-satirical public image as a kind of neo-gothic take on The Shining twins, and embracing (literally as Horror Convention Instagram feeds attest) horror fandom the Soska Sisters have becom e somewhat divisive figures. As much as many celebrate them as role models for female genre filmmakers, some feel the self promotion that they and other genre directors have seized upon as becoming an end in itself to the detriment of their filmmaking (criticism that are not dictated by gender). And then there are openly reactionary elements in genre fandom all to eager to simply fling misogyny at them like monkeys throwing their own faeces around. In many ways American Mary’s story feels like a pre-emptive strike against their critics, and the general pushback against female filmmakers.
The film follows Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) a student surgeon in her final years of training. 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. Desperate to bring in some cash as she cannot even cover her phone bill, she 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, the club’s owner Billy (a credibly sleazy performance by Antonio 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. Mason 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, who is part of an underground body modification community. Mason is able to earn serious money performing extreme procedures on willing patients who want to transform themselves into living art.
Her new found wealth does not pass unnoticed by the senior surgeons observing her residency. However being their misogyny and arrogance leads them to make certain assumptions about her, assumptions that will obliterate her ‘normal’ life leading her ever further the surgical fetish subculture.
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) and a very interesting soundtrack to accompany its bizarre imagery. 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 employed by multi platinum selling pop artists on MTV. The Soska sisters made it feel fresh again, partly with a surgical fetishism theme unlikely to be replicated in Milan fashion shows, but also in the film’s 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 is transgression in action.
Outside of key two scenes, Mason is shown in complete control. Isabelle is fantastic in the part, necessarily sexy, but with agency and purpose. In becoming a very specialised surgeon, she does not just become wealthy, but plugs into a community for perhaps the first time in her life. The only relationships we see her to have in the mainstream world at the start of the film are with men who abuse their positions of authority. The only relationship that counts is with her grandmother her sole anchor to a seemingly normal life. In finding the body modification sub-culture, she finds ‘her people’.
But this is a horror film so where does dread and horror reside? Mary’s initial experience in the strip club that places her on a very left hand path is certainly horrific. The approaches of her first client Beatress (Tristan Risk) an exotic dancer with 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 sexualised images of womanhood to their own ends.
The horror 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 necessary used. The movie functions on a metaphorical level as a indictment of the America dream. Mary is forced to extreme lengths simply to manage her student debt. 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 on an equal footing.
Instead she finds acceptance, success, and a level of notoriety and fame in a reviled, illegal, subculture.
This article was originally written for Scr**njabber. Following a site redesign it, and all my reviews, are now credited to someone else. Some of them were shit pieces of writting so no loss. But a couple (like this) were okay.