Review – AMERICAN MARY (2013)

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People are always looking for the next thing. As the elder Masters of Horror have already advanced to legendary status (and yet still can’t seem to get their films in production), the focus recently shifted to the next generation.

To this end, Herner Klenthur of the website Horror-Movies.ca solicited suggestions on Facebook, asking what should make up a list of the new Masters of Horror. The writer took suggestions and published the results. The list was a mix of established named (Eli Roth, Rob Zombie), rising stars (Ti West, Adam Green, Pascal Laugier) and some controversial choices (Steven Miller). But no controversy was as big as who wasn’t on the list. More specifically, there were no women filmmakers on the list.

This omission was pointed out by the immensely talented Heidi Honeycutt at her must-read website, Planet Etheria. Klenthur then responded by suggesting that he was unaware of any women, at least whose work he has seen (mentioning the directors of this review’s subject by name), that would be able to make the cut. Big mistake, since Planet Etheria is a website devoted to women filmmakers working within the genre. Honeycutt resolved to make up her own list, which she says will include many exciting female directors that could be classified as the New Masters of Horror.

So, was Klenthur’s omission a mistake? Yes, it was. But before any of us start placing blame on the author, I submit that Klenthur is no less guilty than the rest of us. While women are well represented in front of the camera in the horror genre, the story is much different when it comes to writing, producing and directing.

Cinema in general is still a boys club. It’s disgraceful that an artform claiming to embrace diversity often treats the very idea of a talented woman behind the camera as a foreign concept. If there is a talented woman behind that camera, the suggestion is that she will be making films about romantic relationships or raising kids. You know, things that surely every woman must be obsessed with (If you can’t tell that’s sarcasm, I feel sorry for you.). Horror is already treated with disdain, as if those working in the genre must be wired differently. That a woman would have an original vision when it comes to fantasy or horror is seen as downright freakish. The subject matter is often so gruesome and honestly ladies, why would such pretty little things want to trouble themselves with such nasty business? It’s no accident that the old Masters of Horror club doesn’t contain any women either.

I am not innocent in this either. While I, like many others in this field, support and encourage increasing diversity in filmmaking, I have not gone out of my way to educate myself on the subject. I said earlier that this thinking is shameful and I too am ashamed. It’s this very thinking that Honeycutt combats in her writings, detailing how there are scores of talented women filmmakers out there. They just aren’t being acknowledged as they should.

 

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If there is to be a New Masters of Horror, two women that seem likely to make the list are Jen and Sylvia Soska, also referred to as the Soska Sisters or the Soska Twins. Their first film, wonderfully-titled DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK, got quite a lot of buzz when it hit the festival circuit a few years back. But all of that is dwarfed compared to the immense praise they have received for their latest work, AMERICAN MARY, a film that is a much-needed injection of originality for the horror genre.

Mary Mason (Katharine Isbaelle – GINGER SNAPS) is a medical student with designs on becoming a world-class surgeon. Too bad her mentors seem to all be aggressive psychotics. Nevertheless, she struggles with her work and her ever-dwindling finances. Desperation sends her to an underground club where she is expecting to begrudgingly work as an exotic dancer. Instead, she is given the opportunity to save a man’s life by performing an impromptu surgery.

This in turn leads to another solicitation, this time from a strange character named Beatrice, who introduces Mary to the underground world of body modification. These are people who go beyond tattoos and piercings and into a whole new area of expressing their individuality by altering their physical appearance. And for that, they need a skilled surgeon. She accepts the initial job but then doesn’t want anything to do with surgery outside the hospital.

When Mary is invited to a social gathering with established surgeons, she jumps at the chance, only to be used and abused at their hands. In response, she quits medical school and instead pursues a lucrative and illegal career in performing body modification surgeries for this underground culture. She becomes a bit of a celebrity for her keen insight and her skill with a scalpel. But as she is pursuing this, she can feel her grip on what she once thought of as reality slipping. And then of course, she also needs people to practice her art on.

I’ll be honest with you. Despite the praise AMERICAN MARY has received, I had some very big problems with it during the first forty minutes or so. The Soskas presented a world in which the surgeons were broad characters, people you could scarcely believe operated both figuratively and literally within the modern world. They berate the students with insulting language and wear their savagery proudly on their sleeves. I can see what the Soskas were going for here. The so-called straight world is presented as an almost absurdest culture of crassness and personal fulfillment. This works with some subtle humor such as when one of Mary’s teachers informs her that he was indeed going from room to room, seeing if anyone needed to be cut into. It works less well when dealing with their obvious psychotic rantings or in one scene in which Mary is calmly ordered to tell a family their father just died. All of this plays into what AMERICAN MARY hits us with next, but it just started everything on the wrong foot and it’s a flaw that is hard to ignore.

Thankfully, things take a much better turn once Mary leaves her previous world behind and becomes the darling of the extreme underground. This again seems to be an intent of the Soskas. The people who voluntarily have parts of their body either mutilated or removed are in fact more understanding, sympathetic and human than the insanity of mainstream society.

The Soskas’ writing is refreshing. They possess a special insight to their characters, especially those on the fringes of society. The dialogue is well-written and their direction gets some great performances from the supporting cast.

 

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The absolute standout in the film, from beginning to end is Mary herself, Katharine Isabelle. This is an immensely talented actress who gained notoriety after turning in an amazing performance in GINGER SNAPS, a film that remains underrated despite spawning two quality follow-ups. She also appeared in other horror and thriller projects such as FREDDY VS. JASON and Christopher Nolan’s remake of INSOMNIA. She has continued to work steadily over the years in both film and television but she has always been a talented actress whom many seemed to take for granted. After AMERICAN MARY, it will now be impossible to ignore the immense talent that Katherine Isbaelle possesses. Her Mary retains a sense of wit and charm even as her world seems to be coming apart at the seams. Her pain is real and her life-changing career path is completely plausible. People who want to look at exciting new performances would definitely benefit from observing what Isabelle accomplishes here.

AMERICAN MARY recovers nicely from a first act that is far too broad. The Soska twins have an original voice and great instincts and I look forward to watching them as they cultivate both. They are among a number of great women directors within the genre, along with Mary Harron and Xan Cassavetes to name a couple.

I’m sure the Soskas would prefer it if original horror films from a feminine point of view featuring genuinely complex characters weren’t so out of the ordinary. They may even wish to simply be regarded as talented filmmakers in their own right, rather than being lumped in with the “woman in horror” debate like I have in this review. But if there is any growth to be had, it will not be required of them. It will be required of us.

 

 

This review also appeared at Film Geek Central.

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