Day 9: Female-Helmed Horror Movies For October

American Mary
Written and Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska
1 hour, 42 minutes
I watched it on Blu-ray with my friend, Courtney Catallo, and my husband, John Patrick Nelson. Thanks for being down, guys!

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There was a moment a ways into “American Mary” when I turned to Courtney and said something like, “Wow, this movie is surprisingly restrained. I expected a lot more gore.” And not sixty seconds later, the movie took a turn and got GORY. But by then, it’d shown that it didn’t need to do that from moment one and so when the Capital G-Gore was unleashed, it was so effective. Don’t get me wrong. I love gore. I love blood and mess and chaos on screen. But I’m greedy. I want the gore to be thoughtful, just like everything else in the movie.

I almost dread writing about this movie because I fear I will fall short of explaining my feelings about it. It’s a complicated movie. On the one hand, it’s a gory, gross, underworld horror movie, but then it also has this whole layer of anger, of a woman fighting to establish herself, searching for her identity, for respect, for a place of her own. All of that in one movie is damn impressive.

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Here’s a quick plot run-down for you. Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle) is a promising young surgery intern. But since med school is keeping her broke, she answers an ad for strippers, where she meets Billy (Antonio Cupo), the slimy club owner. She naively brings her resume to the “job interview,” which leads Billy to then ask her to perform a black market surgery on a man who’s just been cut up. With $5,000 on offer, Mary agrees, but she loathes the experience. One of the dancers at Billy’s club, Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk) then asks Mary to help her friend with an elective and definitely-not-covered-by-insurance plastic surgery. This leads to a whole career as a body modification surgeon.

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Please be Trigger Warning aware that there is a rape scene in this one. I could detail that it’s a bit long, that it’s upsetting, and so on, but I did say rape scene so I figure you could infer all of that. Rape scenes are a necessarily tricky business. Filmmakers should have good answers for crucial questions like: what does it serve to show it and what does it contribute to the conversation about rape culture? Sure, we should always show and not tell but do we really need to show this? But “American Mary” does a nice job of feeling restrained and horrific but still so in Mary’s point of view. You’re stuck with Mary, and it’s such a sad, moving experience. And then the whole rest of the movie is largely about her trying to find her post-attack self.

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In short, I adored “American Mary” and if you haven’t seen it, it might be the perfect time to check it out. In light of the real-life nightmare of Kavanaugh’s confirmation (ohmigod, I just threw up in my mouth, typing that), this movie is classic catharsis. Since most of us are ripped up over that fact and what it will likely mean for women’s rights in this country, watching Mary exact some well-deserved revenge is delightful. I don’t mean to state that it’s okay that you use your med school skills to mess up a bad guy but hey, that’s part of what the movies are for: working out those big, messy feelings with a really well-made bloodbath.

The Writer/Directors, Jen and Sylvia Soska, are twin sisters from Canada. Sylvia Soska has stated that they wrote the script in two weeks and while I never really believe that kind of claim (first draft maybe), it does have a tremendous sense of urgency, of anger, of relentlessness so maybe the rewrite process was minimal.

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Katherine Isabelle is terrific as Mary, perfectly working that range of low-key, brilliant student to daring and traumatized black market surgeon. Here is this beautiful, powerful, brilliant character and yet Isabelle plays her in such a relatable, striving way. Katherine Isabelle has been lucky in horror films; she has a long list of credits, including the “Ginger Snaps” movies, beloved flicks I still need to see. I have a feeling I’m going to go down a completist run with her work.

David Lovgren plays Mary’s med school professor, Dr. Grant. He’s the one misstep in the flick. His dialogue and delivery at the top of the film are overly intense and on the nose but he does give an excellent, intense performance later in the film. I like that they let him be a secret so they’re trying to let him seem off at the beginning. But it plays like he’s just a bad actor and they wrote bad lines for him. It pays off, but you have to get through that bit to see why.

Mary ends up with an unlikely pair of men backing her up. At one point, Mary’s enforcer, Lance (Twan Holliday) brings her a variety of foods for dinner, since he isn’t sure what she’d be in the mood for. She opts for a chocolate milkshake, and he says, “Yeah, you didn’t seem like the vanilla type.” He then validates the hell out of her work, telling her she shouldn’t sell herself short, that what she does is important. This scene was such a nice surprise, laying out their theme so nicely and this coming out of the mouth of a rather scary-looking dude was an inspired choice. Looks can indeed be deceiving. The handsome, professional men in this movie are the monsters and the more intimidating looking men are the truthful, warm ones. Granted in this story, that’s relative but I still wanted to reach in and hug Lance for supporting his friend so perfectly. She even ends up in a sort-of romance with the strip club owner, Billy. They have each other’s backs in this pure but still so twisted way, I never knew how that was going to end up.

Seeing so many characters with body modifications was a visual feast I didn’t know I needed in a horror film. For example, Beatress has had numerous surgeries to look like Betty Boop, an unnerving make-up effect. She’s both fun and disturbing to look at. Body modification community is treated with such respect and sympathy. Most of the people in the film playing those characters are real-life members of that community. And Mary may be freaked out by it at first but she never treats anyone like a weirdo. She talks to them about how they’d like to express themselves through their bodies, through these surgeries. It’s a perfect attitude for a businessperson to take but Mary does it all with at least a healthy dose of sincerity. In a world where women are constantly condescended to, told they’re lying to get ahead or that they have a crappy memory, where their bodies are violated with rape and anti-abortion laws, Mary’s sympathy for this “outcast” community is just matter-of-fact. You sense she connects with them. Or maybe she’s become so disconnected from her trauma that she’s gone into “fuck it” territory. It’s hard to say but it feels like a bit of both. Mary has her post-rape crying/not reporting it/burning down her career scenes, but of course she does. That’s relatable. I always feel a bit strange writing about rape scenes, or rape in general, since I’m a unicorn. Among the women I know, I’m one of only a handful who haven’t been violated like this. It’s such a pervasive part of our violent culture and I’m so proud of Dr. Ford and women like her who have been speaking out about this epidemic. So while we’re all speaking out and fighting back, sometimes we need a crazy little horror movie to lighten the load. If that idea speaks to you, then “American Mary” will be your jam.

This is the Soska Sisters’ second film. I simply must see their first one now. Listen to this: it’s called “Dead Hooker in a Trunk.” Directed by these ladies and with that title? I’m IN. Since “American Mary,” they’ve also made two films for the WWE, “See No Evil 2” and “Vendetta,” a segment for “ABCs of Death,” and have written for comic books. They’re now working on a remake of Cronenberg’s “Rabid,” and man, the combo of their voice and that idea is so exciting. Fun fact, they also contribute toward Blood Donation Drive awareness campaigns during Women in Horror Month in February. I just love that: what a delightfully on the nose way to help out.

And in conclusion, let me leave you with this wonderful quote from Jen Soska, “I know a lot of working women come into contact with a few monsters, even working men, and it was nice to hang those monsters up in a storage locker.”


That was a bummer ending. When Mary crawled along her floor after getting stabbed by her former patient’s horror show of a husband (no wonder that girl wanted to be desexualized!), her hands slapping the cold ground, and she reached for her surgery tools, I cheered. I thought, yes, she’s going to save herself! And girlfriend even manages to suture herself. But then they cut to the well-meaning male detectives discovering her body and I just felt sick, like damn, another woman cut down. This is a thoughtful flick, so I imagine that’s exactly the tragic vibe the Soskas were going for. And I get that, realistically, she wouldn’t have been able to stop her own internal bleeding, too. But I just really wanted to see her use her powers for her own good this time. Despite her doing those obviously not-the-right-but-damn-cinematic-things with Dr. Grant and that poor security guard, I believed in Mary and wanted to see her succeed.