It’s been just over a decade since American Mary came out, and I have some thoughts of the Soska Sisters iconic body horror gorefest.
American Mary is always a movie that’s stuck with me, because it’s one of the very, very few horror movies made by women that gained a mainstream enough foothold in the horror industry for me to have seen it as a teenager. I first got really into horror in my mid to late teens, and, at that time, there just weren’t a huge amount of horror movies by women that were considered vital viewing in the way so many by men are. Spoilers ahead for the movie, which I really do reccommend watching if you can handle explicit depictions of sexual assault.
And American Mary is, unapologetically, a movie not just by women, but about them, too. It follows medical student Mary, who pays her student loans by performing under-the-table surgery for various clients, especially those looking for outlandish cosmetic surgery. The titular Mary (played by horror icon Katherine Isabelle) is an instantly-iconic slasher antihero, a nuanced, terrifying villain as much as she is a sympathetic protagonist. Much of the movie deals with the aftermath of her sexual assault by a teacher, and her eventual abandonment of her medical career to forge her own path (and mutilate her rapist), and it’s this aspect that I find the most interesting and enduring part of the film.
The Soska Sisters, in American Mary, have crafted a really fascinating spin on the rape and revenge tale. Mary kidnaps her rapist, and holds him hostage as a test subject for her more extreme surgeries. The violence is genuinely pretty shocking, but both the movie and Mary are unapologetic in the way they go about it. There’s something cathartic in it, to take it to this extreme and not attempt to justify it, a depiction of the darkest impulses of people who’ve been victimised in this way.
And then there’s one of the movie’s most iconic characters, Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg), who explores another fascinating side to the movie – she’s a character who arrives to ask Mary to complete a long-term project she’s been working on in terms of body modification, which she intends to culminate with the removal of her nipples and suturing of her vulva. Her intention is to render herself essentially sexless; to finally remove the thing that she sees as the force behind her sexualization and dehuminazation at the hands of the men in her life, and become a person in their eyes. It’s a fascinating idea to me, a sort of short story within the film itself; in a parallel to the way Mary takes revenge on the man who assaulted her, Ruby seems to turn that in on herself, finding a way she can protect herself from future harm by what she sees as functionally de-sexing herself.
The way the Soska Sisters use cosmetic surgery and body modification in this movie pushes femininity to this hyper-stylised, completely fake, highest-of-high-femme extreme, while simultaneously stripping it of it’s sexuality, a genuinely compelling and unique contrast. It’s body horror that twists femininity to the furthest extreme, a sort of grotesquerie wrapped in candy-coloured plastic.
American Mary is not a movie that bothers with much restraint, and that’s one of the things I enjoy the most about it. It’s confronting, both in it’s use of gore, the body modifications Mary provides for her clients, and in the way it depicts rape, it’s aftermath, and women’s attempts to protect themselves from men’s violence. An exploration of autonomy, bodily control, and womanhood, ten years later, it’s still an iconic piece of female-centric horror cinema.
If you enjoyed this article and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Ko-Fi. You can check out more of my work on my personal blog, The Cutprice Guignol!
By Lou MacGregor
(header image via Paragraph Film Reviews)
Reblogged this on The Cutprice Guignol.