American Mary. 2012. Directed & Written by Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska.
Starring Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, David Lovgren, Paula Lindberg, Clay St. Thomas, John Emmet Tracy, Twan Holliday, Nelson Wong, Sylvia Soska, Jen Soska, and Paul Anthony. IndustryWorks Pictures.
Rated 18A. 103 minutes.
Disclaimer: The following discussion contains spoilers. Turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
Also, trigger warning for readers: this article discusses sexual assault, rape (etc).
So a lot of times when I’m considering what to write about on a film, I take a look at what others are saying online. I’m not trying to make that appear like it’s the right thing to do, or proper, but that’s how it is these days. The conversations online can either be interesting or absolute and utter horse shit.
In this case, what I see a lot in regards to American Mary is a debate between certain people about whether or not this film should be considered a rape-revenge genre picture. My two cents is that it is, it just doesn’t follow all the same rules and guidelines that others before it have set out.
This is a more feminist attempt at tackling the rape-revenge sub-genre of horror. First of all, this movie is written and directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska, two awesome filmmaker sisters. So I’d like to believe, as women, they’ve got a different perspective on this whole type of movie. Usually we see the same old stuff – a girl gets assaulted, then somewhere along the line either men take their revenge to be the knight in shining armour, or the girl gets assaulted and then she goes back and gets her revenge (a la I Spit on Your Grave). Here, there’s a bit of a different twist and things aren’t exactly the same as every movie with the same setup.
With a bit of body horror mixed in, the Soska Sisters have created a definitely different horror in the rape-revenge sub-genre. Not that there are no flaws at all, however, I do believe this is one solid piece of modern horror.
American Mary brings us into the world of Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) – a young medical student studying to be a surgeon. Unfortunately, like many struggling students, she has financial problems. She tries hard as possible to study and attend class, but something’s got to give.
Eventually, Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) offers her a job when Mary shows up to apply for his strip club. She is brought to help do some medical work on a person obviously injured during illegal dealings. Afterwards, $5,000 richer, Mary heads home to throw up in the toilet. Clearly, her moral centre has been dealt a heavy blow.
Later she meets a Betty Boop surgical lookalike named Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk) who brings her more work; a friend of hers essentially wants to become a doll, to remove her gender. Again Mary is morally disturbed, her stomach disgusted by what she is doing. Yet it gets easier and easier, certainly with a nice pay cheque under the table.
Meanwhile Mary seems to be climbing the ladder, rubbing shoulders with other doctors and surgeons at the hospital. One doctor invites her to a party where all the surgeons will be getting together. However, at the party something happens which will not only destroy Mary’s trust, her psyche, but it will irreparably turn Mary towards the body modification community. And while she helps people along the way, those who can’t find who they are by any conventional means, there is something sinister brewing along the way deep inside Mary. Something that wants to come out, and it will.
One thing I’m not a fan of in American Mary is something I find detracts from a lot of horror (as well as other genres) that goes for the rape-revenge angle: the perceived necessity to have to show an actual onscreen assault/rape in order for the revenge to be totally justified in the eyes of the audience. It’s not full-on graphic, yet still we’ve GOT TO SEE THE GIRL GETTING HUMPED AS SHE IS DRUGGED AND CAN’T DO A THING! Might as well see it graphically because it’s still highly disturbing, there’s still enough explicit, graphic detail to what’s shown to make it disturbing.
What I do enjoy is the story itself, the plot – Mary is a vulnerable young woman trying hard to get herself through medical school, she has the smarts and the charisma and certainly the work ethic to make it to the top of the surgical world. Then, she’s taken advantage of by people who are meant to be looking out for her, and instead they’re basically luring her in the whole time like some piece of meat, some toy they can use for their own enjoyment simply because she is a vulnerable young woman, a girl in financial trouble who can’t afford to rock the boat or anything like that. So it’s got dramatic elements to it, this is a situation we know all too well.
They could’ve easily done well with the story and not resorted to the bit of graphic imagery concerning Mary’s sexual assault. There didn’t need to be such an outright display of rape for us to understand what happened. It just continues a trend that rape-revenge sub-genre films seem unwilling to buck overall; some films avoid it, most fall right into the pitfall. I wish so badly the Soska Sisters, as female filmmakers, hadn’t went and showed as much as they did. Alas, I’m not the filmmaker, they are, and it’s what they wanted to show in that scene.
Me, I don’t feel like we need to actually see the rape. There doesn’t need to be a graphic display of assault for a woman to get revenge for what’s happened. That’s an overarching metaphor in films that applies to how we see rape in reality: rape in our society seems only to be rape if there is complete physical evidence and the rape is reported immediately and the details are all fleshed out for everyone to see, just as these films HAVE to show the rape or else NO THEY CANNOT HAVE THEIR VENGEANCE!
There’s an element of American Mary that I do feel sort of edges away from a lot of the trends concerning rape-revenge.
I love how Mary (Katharine Isabelle), while aided a little in capturing the man who raped her, basically executes revenge on her own. She does not need a man to take revenge for her, she can do it on her own. This is the sign of true empowerment if we’re going to talk about feminist horror films. A true feminist horror, especially one that involves the rape-revenge sub-genre, must have the woman be the ultimate hero, or the ultimate killer, whatever you want. But bottom line is, the female character must take matters into her own hands and not rely on the shining white knight to ride in like SO MANY other horrors – even ones that pose to be different, claiming their female characters are more developed than other horrors, still seem to be relegated to a universe where the man can be the only one to seek revenge and it is the woman who suffers both the rape/the inability of being able to save herself/claim revenge. At least American Mary doesn’t full-on lay waste to the idea it is a feminist horror. By having Mary become such an aggressive woman, lusting after her revenge, once the assault happens, this movie really does well as a film I can at least call partly feminist.
Another thing that pisses me off when I see people complaining about this movie online is how some seem to think it’s unrealistic that Mary would up and change all of a sudden, such a stark contrast from who she was pre-rape to who she became afterwards.
That is nonsense. Ever know someone who’s been raped? If you have and still can’t understand the change in Mary Mason here, maybe they handled it better than some others. Because most people who suffer severe trauma – such as the soul-crushing betrayal and rape that Mary experienced at the hands of her college professor, a supposed trusted doctor/surgeon – they end up a totally different person after what they experience because rape, assault, these are things which morph a psyche into unrecognizable forms at times.
Such a form is what Mary becomes. She hates the idea of becoming a surgeon after being lured into a sex party (by a surgeon), drugged by surgeons, then raped by a surgeon. Why wouldn’t she quit school? I’d never be able to go back to that college campus again. Let alone study medicine. Plus, she’d already begun to find a viable option of paying bills through the black market jobs she began being introduced to by Billy from the strip club. So it’s no unreasonable to think she’d ditch the surgery and go into body modification services.
NOT TO MENTION the fact this provided a real outlet for her revenge upon the disgusting scum surgeon who raped her and ruined her whole life. This way, Mary could apply her work to making this man’s life, or the remainder of it, a living fucking Hell.
So really, any objections to the character of Mary switching from one extreme to another are unfounded. They don’t mean jack to me. I see Mary Mason as someone who is real, despite the heightened body horror elements which come about later on; there’s a true sense of tragic, raw reality to her character that drives this film.
There are a few incredible body horror moments here that I couldn’t get enough of, as well as one definite (as I see it) David Cronenberg reference; particularly to Dead Ringers.
Body horror can often go overboard to the point of becoming gross-out/shock horror for the sake of being shocking. With the premise of the film and all the body modification elements, American Mary perfectly straddles the line at times by including enough to make things plenty gory while still not just becoming a movie based on shocking the viewer instead of using suspense, tension, and character development to build an atmosphere that makes things creepy and disturbing all at once.
The BIG REVEAL, so to speak, (happens about 1 hour 6 minutes in) is ultimately my favourite part of the movie in terms of the body horror aspects. Not that it was a huge reveal in the sense I did not see it coming, just in regards to how it’s revealed visually. The horror of seeing Mary’s rapist hanging there, his arms and legs amputated, everything being modified is a nice little shock but in a good sense; above him hangs an IV, no doubt helping her keep the bastard alive, and while it’s super creepy you almost feel happy to see the disgusting rapist in a tremendous amount of pain and peril.For me, the Soska Sisters’ American Mary is a solid 4 out of 5 star film. It is a body horror crossed with the rape-revenge sub-genre. Best of all, it has Katharine Isabelle who is one of the best young women acting today. Honestly – between this and Hannibal on which she plays the role of twisted sister Margot to the sadistic pedophile Mason Verger, I am totally sold on Isabelle being a talented and risk-taking actress. She does a perfect job here showing us the tortured psyche of Mary Mason. When I heard that the Soska Sisters wrote this role with Isabelle in mind, it did not surprise me in the least. Fits her perfectly.
So if you’re looking for something fresh, horrifying, and downright gory at times, then American Mary is a pretty damn good horror movie to thrown on. I love this one. The Blu ray is excellent quality, plus there are some features – I really do enjoy the commentary with the Soska Sisters, Katharine Isabelle, and Tristan Risk. Good bit of insight into the production and lots of fun to hear. Above all else, the picture and sound is unbelievable. Well worth picking up if you’re a fan of the Soskas or of the film itself.