The big surprise this Christmas was happening upon a body horror film that the whole group, including those who were not horror fans, enjoyed – American Mary. It’s very unusual for the uninitiated to be drawn to movies from exploitation subgenres such as body horror and rape/revenge. American Mary certainly falls squarely into these groups, yet one guest deemed it “tastefully done”. That perception is quite an accomplishment for a film from such highly criticized subgenres of horror.
American Mary tells the story of a smart, sexy medical student whose financial struggles lead her to perform underground body modification operations. Though initially Mary Mason’s only interest is a financial quick fix, she accepts it as a new vocation after being disillusioned by the mentors she once admired and quitting medical school. Like David Cronenberg’s Crash (James Spader, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette), the film concerns itself less with debating the ethics of such practices than portraying the perceived benefits to its proponents. But, like any mad scientist centered tale, dismissing the potential repercussions of messing with nature can have unforeseen consequences. When her first client remarks “I don’t think it’s really fair that God gets to choose what we look like on the outside”, Mary doesn’t give it much thought. She knows after all, she’s capable of performing the procedure and it is what the client wants. Unlike most mad scientists though, Mary is steered by her circumstances rather than delusions of grandeur and is both surprised and unaffected by the celebrity status she earns.
Most body horror films are a sort of visual slapstick that pique the interest of only the most hardcore splatter fans. But, American Mary has a developing story and unusual, damaged characters who fascinate the viewer. One can’t help but recall Todd Brownings Freaks (1932) when watching the film. Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) delivers a strong lead as Mary. Jen and Sylvia Soska (Twisted Twins Productions), who wrote and directed the film, had her in mind when they wrote the part. According to an interview with Mad Mike at Maven’s Movie Vault of Horror, they were introduced to her work in Ginger Snaps after being teased at school and called the Fitzgerald sisters. They rented the film to see what their bulliers meant. Isabelle manages to nail it, portraying a woman who is both hero and monster, displaying strength and weakness, compassion and viciousness and creating a believable, sympathetic, albeit morally ambiguous character. The character, who dons a black apron, gloves and heels during surgery is reminiscent of the lead in Audition (1999).
While Mary’s first bouts with illicit surgery leave her physically ill, her attitude changes as she learns more about the unethical arrogance of the surgeons she once aspired to be like. When they invite her to a private party where she is drugged and raped, any line between mainstream surgical practice and the underground she has discovered disappear. She captures her attacker for use in practicing and documenting procedures she is willing to perform including: genital alterations, amputation, teeth grinding and various other body revisions. Soon, through the internet she becomes a revered celebrity, known as Bloody Mary, for the body modification crowd.
The Soska sisters appear in the film as twins requesting some particularly extreme modifications, including the exchange of their left arms. Mary’s other clients are freakish curiosities obsessed with expressing their inner selves through their physical appearance. Mary becomes their savior through her willingness to do anything someone assures her they want.
A fascinating parade of clients is featured. Reportedly, no computer effects were used in the film, which instead relied on makeup and actual body modification images and practitioners. As Mary approaches her work as a professional, blood and gore is minimized, giving the film more the feel of a psychological suspense piece than a gore fest despite the subject matter. However, the entire film is visually striking, seeped in deep reds and black. I would assume that the twisted sisters were fans of Dario Argento (Suspira). Whether consciously or not, certainly the masters of Japanese and Italian horror impacted the look of this film.
What is most horrific is the realistic obsession with body image the characters hold. Beatrice, the sweet and likeable woman who has undergone over a dozen surgeries to make her look as much like Betty Boop as possible particularly stands out both for her performance and her chilling visage.
According to the Soska sisters, American Mary came about after they sent their first film Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009) to their favorite directors and got a response from Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) who wanted to see more scripts. Though they didn’t have anything prepared they told him about several ideas and he requested seeing the one about the surgeon. American Mary was written in just a couple of weeks and sent to him. It was later filmed in only 15 days. American Mary is the second of what the sisters call their “coming of age/adolescent triology” between Dead Hooker in a Trunk and Bob. Stylistically they claim Bob will have more of a monster and reverse rape/revenge vibe with equal parts hilariousness and vulgarity. Can’t wait!