Wednesday, October 02, 2013

An Arm and a Leg

Katharine Isabelle in American Mary

As it flies off the rails in its second half, all I could think while I was watching American Mary (2012, directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska) was, "How could this film NOT fly of the rails?" This is a film that thrives on transgression. It's the rare film that can forge transgression for its own sake into something coherent and satisfying and integrated, and this isn't that film. In spite of that, it's fun film to follow down the rabbit hole.

Mary Mason is a gifted surgical med student, but like many students, she's having financial troubles. She's struggling to keep her utilities on and her tuition paid. In order to make rent, she answers a want ad at a strip club where her qualifications and resume are entirely out of scale for the job. The owner of the club has another idea, though, and soon, Mary is performing surgeries for shady underworld characters. Into this comes Beatrice, who works at the club. Beatrice is a plastic surgery addict and body modification enthusiast. She recognizes talent when she sees it, and she goes to Mary to buy her services for one of her friends in the scene. Reluctantly, Mary gets drawn in. The money is good, and like most people, she gets used to the strangeness of her life. Meanwhile, her studies take a dark turn. Her mentor, Dr. Grant, is convinced that Mary has turned to sex work to pay her bills, and at his suggestion, Mary is invited to a party for the surgeons. Once there, she is drugged and raped. After which, Mary chooses to go freelance, and her first project is Dr. Grant, from whom she exacts a ghastly revenge. Soon, Mary has a worldwide reputation as a body mod surgeon, and she adds to that as an underworld wet worker. Unfortunately, the cops come around, investigating the disappearance of Dr. Grant...

Katharine Isabelle in American Mary

This is a film that indulges in images that challenge bourgeois notions of beauty and body integrity. While mild body modification has made huge gains in acceptance over the last thirty years--who even blinks at tattoos and piercings anymore--the kinds of mods in this film are still thought of as bizarre. Mary herself gives a litany of them as she goes to work on the unfortunate Dr. Grant: tongue splitting, implants, voluntary amputation. One of the film's creepiest images is the face of Beatrice, modified beyond human norms to look like Betty Boop. It's a challenge to see all of this stuff as empowering, but since I've engaged in some level of body modification myself (though nothing like what's on screen here), I'm open to the film's ideas. Beyond that, this is a movie that subverts the male gaze. The fact that one of the central locations of the film is a strip club is a booby trap (if you'll pardon the pun), because this is a movie about taking patriarchal beauty standards to an extreme. The girl who wants to look like a doll, for instance, wants to escape the sexualized male gaze and embody its unrealistic ideals at the same time, and while Beatrice works as a stripper, her appearance takes beauty standards into the valley of the uncanny.

There's an inherent horror of the medical profession on display in this film, too, and anyone who has had to deal with doctors on a regular basis will recognize the exaggeration of the god complex of doctors on display in this film's early scenes. There's an equivalency between the surgeries Mary is being taught in med school and what she does as extracurricular activity. All of the doctors in this film are portrayed as self-absorbed monsters. They aren't harmless at all.

Katharine Isabelle in American Mary

The Soska sisters are going to be making horror films for a while. They know their way around a camera and they've framed everything on screen here in a detached, almost clinical version of horror movie grottiness (think David Fincher by way of David Cronenberg). The filmmaking here is sound. So, too, is the central performance by Katharine Isabelle, which is cold, sexy, fetishized, and ultimately lit by an unfathomable madness. She's a monster, eventually, but a sympathetic monster in the best tradition of the genre. The film makes us understand her motives, even if it uses that most banal of revenge tropes; a rape narrative. In this case, the rape narrative is all of a piece, since the film itself is about bodily violations of all sorts. Both the filmmaking acumen and Isabelle kept me watching.

Unfortunately, the screenplay--also by the Soskas--is all over the map, and while Katharine Isabelle is good in the lead, the other actors are less good. The film chases several narrative dead ends: the obsession that club-owner Billy Barker develops for Mary, for instance, comes to nothing. So, too, does the surgery Mary performs on the sinister twins who want to exchange body parts (played by the directors themselves). We get no pay off to either that plot thread or even the built-in promise of what they look like after Mary is done with them. And the final resolution of the film? That comes out of left field. It's a plot turn that's not on anyone's radar. This is a film that seems more a picaresque than a unified whole, which hurts it.

Still and all, this is a refreshing change of pace for a genre that's lately been choked with possession movies and ghost stories. While it may not be a unified whole, American Mary is its own thing, and that's not something that should be discounted.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 1

First Time Viewings: 1

And so begins the October Challenge. Some of the other folks around the web are off to a good start.

Tim over at The Other Side is joining us again this year. He has two films under his belt already: Thale and Jack and Diane.

While Zach Doiron over at Horrifying Reviews has his challenge planned out to a "T." His first film is John Carpenter's creepy ghost story, The Fog.

Again, if you're blogging the challenge yourself, let me know in the comments and I'll add you to the link dump. Happy screaming.

October Horror Movie Challenge Banner Thing version


Timothy S. Brannan said...

Thanks for this review. American Mary is on my list, but a little further down.

Enjoying doing this again this year!! My kids ask me all the time now "what did you watch last night?" and "are you really tired now?"

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Tim. I hope you've set aside some movies to watch with your kids. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, perhaps? Or Forbidden Planet? It's never too early, you know.