The rape and revenge subgenre has always been controversial for displaying acts of sexualized violence on screen. However, the subgenre, when done well, works to open up discussion of rape culture, and to reverse the gaze from survivor to rapist. American Mary offers a daring new take on rape and revenge and body horror cinema that does not limit its scope to sex and murder. Writers and directors, Jen and Sylvia Soska examine the life of a girl who has worked toward something all her life, only to have her dreams shattered one after the other. Mary uses the wrongs that have be brought upon her to fuel her own twisted American dream. American Mary is a bold, refreshing, and emotive horror flick that showcases the potential of the Soska Twins.
While their first feature, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, was all kinds of fun, American Mary is a vast improvement that switches from kitsch to clever, forcing the audience to actually feel. Katherine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) plays Mary, an intelligent, funny, awkward, sexy, and scary medical student struggling to make ends meet. Isabelle’s performance is instantly captivating as the perfect girl next door. But when she’s offered a healthy sum of $5000 to sew up a back-alley crime victim, a little part of her deteriorates, and it all slides downhill from there.
Word gets out that Mary is in the game of performing underground operations, and a Betty Boop imitator hires her to de-sexualize her Barbie Doll friend. The much-needed emotional attachment to the lead is tough to find in modern horror, but Mary is the ideal girl next door who you can’t help but love despite her moral ambiguity. Mary realizes her potential as a surgeon, and though her ethics are compromised, she makes the money she needs to get through med school by performing seedy plastic surgeries.
All is coming up bloody roses until Mary becomes the victim of a particularly nasty sexual assault. It is not a particularly violent rape, but the Soska Twins show the despair in Mary’s eyes, adding to the emotional weight of the scene. After this heinous act, Mary is gone. All the events lead up to her metamorphosis, where she transforms from hero to monster. The film brilliantly combines the idea of the final girl with the killer, making for one fierce female anti-hero. She may be the girl of your dreams, but cross her, and she’ll surgically remove your arms and sew your eyelids shut.
Rather than forcing gore in the face of the audience, the Soska Twins utilizes the bloodshed to challenge the audience’s views on transformative surgery. The film fits within the strange Canadian medical body horror category with films like Dead Ringers and the recent Antiviral. However, American Mary differentiates itself by exploring body modification as a form of artistic expression.
American Mary is far from a perfect film. The male lead is weak and his on-screen chemistry with Katherine Isabelle is off, in large due to some awkward dialog. The latter half of the film is weaker than the build up, as it’s a bit difficult to believe Mary could undergo such a big transformation in so little time. There’s one particular scene of Mary threatening a stripper in the bathroom stall of her favorite seedy hangout, which is simply out of character. The film loses some steam as it heads into the final act, but luckily, the climax ascends and Isabelle’s performance carries the film through the rough patches.
The Soska Twins have come a long way since Dead Hooker, and American Mary is huge leap forward in their career as filmmakers. Paying tribute to body horror and rape and revenge cinema, the Soska Twins have created a film that’s bound to make audiences feel for their devil of a protagonist. Despite its flaws, this is a film that shines a light on Canadian cinema, offering hope that there is still originality to be found in horror.