Home Video Hovel: American Mary, by Aaron Pinkston
For the past few years around Halloweentime my wife and I have attended 24-hour horror marathons — though I thoroughly enjoy myself, she usually has a tougher time with many of the films. It’s not just an adverse reaction to jump scares, gore, or other general horror conventions, but also because the genre is typically quite misogynistic (especially the types of horror films that end up at 24-hour marathons). Women are often only seen as sexual objects or victims of brutality, some are allowed to survive but only after hours of being terrorized. Though there are obviously exceptions, many a “final girl” survive not because of any talent or intellect, but because the genre needs a survivor. Perhaps as direct opposition to the male driven genre, most of the feminist horror films we’ve seen work as revenge flicks with their heroines preying on the men who marginalize them. American Mary isn’t different in that respect, but it does a particularly good job of creating a sympathetic figure and a surprisingly adept dramatic story.
Mary Mason, played by Katharine Isabelle (of feminist-horror Ginger Snaps fame), is a young med student who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Running into financial problems, she looks to moonlight to pay her bills, but after a series of events during her strip club interview she becomes wrapped up in the underground world of body modification. Quickly, she rises to prominence, catching the attention of a number of potential clients and subsequent trouble.
I can’t say to know much about body modification, but I assume it exists and American Mary nicely uses it to fulfill both genre and theme. Not only are the surgical experiments in the film weird and gory and gruesome, the characters in this world are much deeper than perceived. People obsessed with plastic surgery to the extent of looking like a famous Hollywood star or permanently disfiguring themselves are usually resigned to tabloids where normal people can laugh at them at a safe distance. Mary’s clients, though, have a wonderful sense of self and social viewpoint — despite the popular perception, they don’t change their appearance to get more sexual attention, but to look how they feel. It might be easy to call BS on this argument, but I found American Mary to legitimately believe in this and not look down on these people, reserving hatred for those who deserve it.
Perhaps the film’s best attribute is how it connects us to Mary — with the film’s absolute respect of minor characters in a foreign subculture, it’s easy to understand how it treats its main focus. We are introduced to Mary in a medical school classroom. Without a lot of effort, it puts us right into the worldview of most women who are studying or working in a field that is so male dominated — Mary is the only woman we see in the classroom and the professor doesn’t take her seriously. After she begins taking her odd jobs and her disposable income is noticed, the men in her life directly assume that she is working as a prostitute and feel that gives them some sort of sexual opportunity. It’s a terrifying world, but not out of the ordinary, putting the audience right there with Mary. Likewise, Isabelle’s performance is more laid back than one would expect — she feels strangely like a normal girl, very comfortable and appropriately affected by the increasingly crazy world around her. She sticks out in a film with many strange characters and over-the-top performances, anchoring the film.
American Mary is a very interesting female-driven entry into the horror genre, but it isn’t without its flaws. First of all, it’s really not scary — there is plenty of gore and an overall horror vibe, but it won’t make you afraid of the dark. That’s not necessarily a problem, but if you are looking for a horror film in that way, you’ll probably be disappointed. More damning, there isn’t much of a conclusion. There are enough interesting set-pieces and scenes throughout to keep it entertaining, but it doesn’t really build to anything. The film has an emotional arc for its character, but it relies on an odd semi-twisty ending that doesn’t really contribute.
On the DVD you’ll find a 17-minute behind-the-scenes doc which gives you a look into the film’s making and a commentary track with the filmmaking tandem, the Soska sisters, and actresses Katharine Isabelle and Tristan Risk. The commentary track, despite some terrible sound mixing (you can barely hear Isabelle, who seems to be calling in on a shitty cellphone), is a nice companion to the film. It’s easy to see that the film is definitely in the spirit of Jen & Sylvia Soska, who are apart of the film’s subcultured world-view, but incredibly approachable. I would have liked hearing more about their experience trying to break into a male industry, but they stick pretty closely to the film.