American Mary is brought to us by the lovely Soska sisters, Jen and Sylvia, who wrote and directed this little gem of a movie. In the spirit of Women Of Horror Week, this review will be lengthy and have spoilers. So, if you haven’t yet seen American Mary I suggest you rectify that immediately.
Mary Mason, played with both apathetic and tortured precision by Katherine Isabelle, is a surgery student finding it extremely difficult to keep up financially. We are introduced to her as she practices sutures on a turkey, while we listen to a loose version of Ave Maria. Mary’s instructor, Dr. Grant, pulls Mary aside to tell her that she is one of his most promising students and she needs to stop messing about because “surgeons don’t make mistakes’. After squabbling with a bill collector on the phone, Mary pursues the personal ads and responds to a job offer at a strip club. This is when we are introduced to Billy, the proprietor of Bourbon-A-Go-Go. During the interview Billy is called away and when he returns, he asks Mary if she wants to make $5000, no questions asked. Reluctantly, Mary agrees out of financial desperation and is visibly shaken after she finishes the job;she returns home and cries.
Just when she finds out she has lost her waitressing job, Mary receives a call from Beatress Johnson. Beatress is a living, breathing replica of Betty Boop. She works at Billy’s club, learns of Mary’s medical skills and requests Mary to perform a procedure on a friend. Beatress explains that her and her friends are trying to make their outsides look the way they feel on the inside:this particular sentiment comes up quite a bit in the movie. As Mary begins taking on patients who desire unconventional procedures, she learns of the body modification community. Members of this community want nothing more than for their outsides to match their insides in whatever way that entails (i.e.) implants, teeth filing, genital modification, voluntary amputation, etc.
Ruby Realgirl is Mary’s first major surgery. Ruby explains that she wants to look like a doll because dolls can be naked and never feel shy, or sexualized of degraded. I cannot speak for all women, but it’s hard not to feel that way when you’re clothed,much less naked, so this statement really resonated with me and made me look a little deeper. During this surgery, we are treated to Ave Maria again, but it’s a bit more polished than the version at the opening of the movie. Only the Soska sisters could have made a surgery where a woman loses her sexual identity look so tender and graceful. Mary takes great care with Ruby and it’s truly beautiful.
Dr. Grant and his colleague, Dr. Walsh, invite Mary to have drinks with them and some other surgeons that evening; Mary is so pleased to accept this invitation. Wearing a stunning emerald green dress given to her by Ruby Realgirl, Mary enters Dr.Grant’s apartment and is immediately handed a drink. It is brought to Mary’s attention more than once that she has, obviously, found a way to make good money. Essentially, the Dr.’s have assumed that Mary has turned to prostitution, which is why they have invited her, drugged her drink and believe they are allowed to violate her. As Dr. Grant videotapes himself raping Mary, it’s striking how this particular rape scene is traumatizing in a truly visceral way:it’s tragic, but not gratuitous and violent. The Soska sisters have managed to film an ugly, yet beautiful, rape scene:it’s emotionally haunting, but doesn’t leave a mental scar. When Mary wakes up next to Dr. Grant and realizes what has occurred, we watch her humanity die as she rides the elevator down from his apartment.
Mary requests for Billy and his thugs to bring Dr. Grant to her apartment. Mary turns on some smooth jazz and then proceeds to practice body modification surgeries, sans anesthesia, because “surgeons don’t make mistakes”. The camera turns away from the actual violence which is, really, more effective at making you cringe. Mary quickly becomes a popular surgeon within the body modification community. We are even treated to a lovely cameo by the Soska sisters as two of Mary’s patients. The more Mary detaches herself from what she’s doing, the more distant and hollow she becomes;she’s merely a shadow of who she was. The people around her are scared of her and don’t believe that she has feelings. When visiting Dr. Grant, whom she is keeping alive in a storage unit hanging from hooks with no limbs and his mouth sewn shut, she is found by a security guard. Mary literally beats the life out of this poor security guard and everything goes downhill from here.
Wearing the only white you will see in the movie, Mary meets her demise at the hands of Ruby Realgirl’s husband. He is not pleased with his “new” wife and decides to wait at Mary’s house for her and proceeds to stab her. Mary manages to kill him and as she drags herself to her surgery room, Ave Maria starts again. This time, it is an exquisite version playing over the image of Mary in her white dress, on a white floor, surrounded by a pool of her own blood as she stitches herself up. Stunning.
On a practical level, American Mary is a great horror movie with it’s own unique esthetic and really intriguing subject matter. As a woman I was really struck by the story of a woman trying to succeed in a, decidedly, man’s world. It’s the men who chip away at her little by little and, eventually, consume her. All of her clients just want to look the way that they feel and not be judged for it:this is something we can all identify with. Women seem to be particularly judged by their looks in our current society. Women are no longer allowed to age and they certainly aren’t allowed to enjoy food or dress as though they’ve matured past the age of 19. In a Rue Morgue interview Katherine Isabelle has been quoted as saying, “As a young, attractive female, I now have to sell a brand, I have to have a definable style;it’s annoying. Being a girl is time consuming and boring and annoying, when it comes down to having to do your fucking hair and your makeup and your outfit and everything. It’s suffocatingly dull.” Society has simply put a lot of demands on women today, some of which are just ridiculous, and American Mary explores this is a very unique way. As her world spirals out of control, Mary looks more and more put together. She puts on her armor of makeup and clothing to deal with the world externally in a successful manner, but internally she is failing miserably. Ultimately, Mary succumbs to the world that she has put herself in, but she goes out her way, on her terms. This movie is a breath of fresh air for women in horror. The lead is flawed, but not helpless, confused but not weak, put upon by societal standards but not beaten down by them. Mary Mason is a flawed heroine and it’s gorgeous.