Horror has become generic. What once was about the individual fears that prickle at the back of consciousness, be it needles or the dark, loneliness or sudden unexpected intrusion, is now about gore, gross physical violation and violent bloody death, over and over, a simplification as bland as the titles of parade of films who tout this as their sole ware, Saw, Hostel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre… How refreshing and ironic that not only does American Mary buck that trend, but that it is a film about expressing individuality which comes to us courtesy of a trio of women, so often marginalised and victimised in horror.
Mary Mason is a promising student at medical school, and will be a fine surgeon. Her tutor, Doctor Grant pushes her hard, but that is because he expects the best from her and for her, venting his anger when she falls asleep in class after another night of cutting and stitching turkeys in lieu of real patients. Mary has other problems, however; her meager income does not match even her modest lifestyle. Unable to turn to her sole relative, her elderly grandmother, her desperation to secure funds leads her to the Bourbon-A-Go-Go and the promise of $1000 a week plus tips.
Required to provide an impromptu solo performance for Billy, the strip club manager, the meeting goes badly, but fate intervenes and the offer is raised to $5000 on the spot if Mary is willing to perform emergency surgery on one of the patrons who is bleeding to death in the basement, no questions asked. The act of well recompensed mercy will come to haunt her, for as she flees the scene, she leaves her resume behind with full contact details attached.
Mary is neither victim nor villain, though there are aspects of both to her; rather she is a strong woman in complicated and terrible circumstance who uses her knowledge, skill and determination, getting on with the job first to survive, then to thrive, but at terrible cost to herself. As the tone inevitably darkens, she does not brood on what was done to her; she puts in place arrangements whereby she may have her revenge, and exacts it not only with clinical precision, but uses it to hone her skills for her new home business.
The key players are Katharine Isablle as Mary, best known for the Ginger Snaps series though with a wealth of screen experience behind her, and Antonio Cupo as Billy. Their scenes are fascinating, he the man who put her in this position, later trying to reach out and rescue her from what he has created, and although she might have had feelings for him, Mary too disconnected to act on them, the only recognisable emotion left in her a streak of jealousy. Special mention should also go to Twan Holiday as Lance, the intimidating doorman, perhaps the only person who understands the woman struggling under the burden of Bloody Mary, the name she has been given online despite her attempts at anonymity.
Mary and Beatress
This is not to neglect the supporting cast, particularly Tristan Risk and Paula Lindberg, enlivening their roles despite prosthetics both amazing and creepy, where disturbingly perfect meets the just-not-quite-right, images that should never be set in flesh. Both experienced performers in their own fields, through them Beatress and Ruby Realgirl become people rather than caricatures, or worse, freaks.
Mary’s patients are exotic and bizarre, some of them are possibly in need of therapy rather than surgery, but a later montage of her clients – many of them well known pioneers of body modification – are more honest representations of the individuals who practice this field, cheerful, well adjusted, exuberant and totally at home in their customised bodies. Indeed, the surgeons with whom Mary works actually far more disturbed than her private patients.
Praise is also due for Jen and Sylvia Soska, the Twisted Twins, who both directed the film and wrote the script specifically with Isabelle in mind, and appear in a cameo in the film. It is rare for women to enter the field of horror, especially with so strong and unique a voice, a vision very different from the too often exploitive direction the genre takes. Based on this evidence, they deserve both recognition and success for this and their future projects.