One of the largest criticisms of the horror genre is that it is innately sexist. With its propensity for gratuitous female nudity and tendencies toward female torture, horror films seem to be a bit woman hating on their surface. Really, though, if you look beneath that surface you see a more complex, and sometimes feminist, outlook. These bare-breasted, oppressed women often rise up against this patriarchal torture and overcome it. By the end of the majority of these types of films, the woman stands alone, the only survivor. In this context, what first appears as simple objectification with a sprinkle of a particularly violent brand of misogyny quickly becomes more complicated and maybe even a bit pro-feminism. In that scope, American Mary, the latest from Jen and Sylvia Soska, seems to be intent on continuing that discussion.
At its core, American Mary seems interested in two major themes. The first portion of the film seems solely interested in body image, the human obsession of correcting and modifying what nature has given them. While this theme never really goes away, it does take a back seat to a second, even darker, theme that develops in the second act. This is the theme that dissects the “woman as victim, man as predator” dichotomy of horror films. The narrative balance, and eventual mixture, given to these themes in American Mary is what makes the film such a disturbing, unpredictable, and ultimately successful addition to horror cinema.
American Mary follows ambitious medical student, Mary Mason who, through a series of events, finds herself a black market surgeon peddling in increasingly risky and extreme body modification procedures. The film, though, is really about much more than that basic plot description. In lesser hands, this film could have slipped into a tawdry exercise in that sub-genre so lovingly dubbed “torture porn”. In the hands of the Soska Sisters, however, the film never really interests itself in the torture portion of this world. Instead, a large portion of the gore happens off screen, the camera seeming more interested in the characters of the film than the bloody bits falling out of them. This leads to the thematic elements mentioned above getting real screen time to develop. Instead of a simple, one-note shock film, the audience is treated to a legitimate rumination of body image and female oppression.
The camera isn’t a noble observer, however. While it drifts away from the gore, it has no problem dwelling on the female form. In a film where Mary is constantly ogled and hunted by predatory men, the camera seems intent on following those men’s leads. This choice by the Soska Sisters is an effective one, because it doesn’t let the audience off the hook. It would be easy for American Mary to portray these men and, by extension, all men as vile predators that can never be trusted. Instead, The Soska Sisters put that sexuality right in all of our faces and force us to face that same animalistic instinct. By acknowledging that sexuality, that last vestige of primal animalism in humanity, American Mary is obviously not content separating villains and heroines into neat little categories. In this world, we are both. All of us, villains and heroes battling within our human frame.
The other cinematic component that really lifts American Mary above a cheap thrill horror film are the performances. As much as the camerawork, the acting performances affect the narrative of any given film into comfortable, black and white categories or, as is the case in American Mary, into a more complex and unnerving arena. Katharine Isabelle, most notably from the seriously underrated “Ginger Snaps”, leads the performance charge in American Mary. Her complex and somewhat damaged portrayal of Mary never lets the film clearly define right from wrong. She is the victim, she is also the villain. Isabelle’s performance adds nuance and vulnerability to a character that demands it.
So American Mary, as in the large majority of horror films, cannot really be classified as sexist. That sexist monicker is a quick and easy dismissal of an uncomfortable subject. The relationship between women and men is a complicated, and often dangerous, one. The fact that horror acknowledges this and allows it to fester on screen, usually in very unpleasant ways, makes so many uncomfortable that the only real reconciliation they can come to is that this festering is obviously misogynistic and trashy. The truth, though, is that horror films such as American Mary are not tawdry, they are complex contemplations on the darkest parts of ourselves.