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American Mary

The plot follows a bright medical student, Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle), who quickly resorts to stripping after her financial circumstances become desperate. Subsequently, Mary is led into the world of underground surgeries and modifications, leaving more marks on her than her so called freakish clientele.

When the Soska sisters wrote the script, they had always envisioned Katharine 'Katie' Isabelle to play the lead, and it's fairly obvious because the role allows Ms. Isabelle to display her talents and demonstrate how capable she is whilst never venturing out of her limitations, as few and far between as they may be. Without a doubt, she is the sole factor that elevates this film from being forgettable to being a notable piece of cinema. Like I said in my Ginger Snaps review, something that Isabelle always does brilliantly is underplay the more sinister aspects of her characters, she's subtle, and that makes her come across as blunt, harsh, and plain out cold. Yet she's equally as skilled in portraying the more ordinary, likeable traits that Mary starts out with, thus creating a well-rounded character with depth and authenticity, and as such, her descent from being the girl next door to murderous fiend is an apparent and effective transition, that's both heart-destroying and chilling to watch.

Nevertheless, she is supported by some of her co-stars, like Tristan Risk, who portrays a woman obsessed with Betty Boop and therefore undergoes a series of body modifications to become a living embodiment of the iconic character. Her mannerisms and particularly her squeaky, cartoonish voice create an instantly likeable and captivating character that is consistent throughout all of her scenes, yet this is something that becomes devastating later on when she’s brutally attacked and hysterically crying on the phone to Mary.

Yet Beatress Johnson, the name of Ms Risk’s character, isn’t the only figure of the body modification community to expel and dismiss stereotypes regarding them, which naturally leads on to the writing of Sylvia and Jennifer Soska. The tagline they used to promote the film was “appearances are everything” something that was inspired by the sisters own experience in the film industry, in which they encountered a series of ordinary looking figures who were anything but pleasant towards them, an experience that wasn’t replicated when they encountered the body mod community, and I think they touch on something quite relevant really. In a heavily superficial and materialistic world, those who don’t adhere to expectations are cast aside as “freaks” and inferior to those who do, and “American Mary’s” exploration into the significance of appearances is one of its stronger, and more thought provoking elements. Essentially, the film starts off with Mary having little to no interest in how she appears, but as she begins to descend into depravity, she begins applying her makeup with almost surgical precision to emulate a sense of normalcy to the rest of the world when she’s struggling desperately on the inside. In fact, all of the film’s antagonists appear as ordinary people, whilst Mary’s clients are far more sincere, charming, and benevolent figures who simply reflect on the exterior, what they feel in the interior. Basically, the film promotes the message of “don’t judge a book by its cover” and it does so successfully. To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m discussing this at such great length, because it’s one of a multitude of topics the film discusses really, but I think I just personally resonated with the sense of wanting to fit in and feeling one of the best ways to do that is via your appearance, therefore disguising any insecurities or flaws, which is exactly what the more villainous characters do here, and a lot of people in real life do as well.

However, the writing in general is very much above par. This is one of the most original horror films produced in this decade without a doubt, and whilst most modern horrors can easily be classified as slashers, torture porn etc. This one is distinctly different from all of those, yet it still manages to be as horrifying as any of the aforementioned genres. In part, this is additionally due to the direction of the duo. A lot of the surgery scenes are all implied, yet they still made me almost gag a couple of times and the dark lighting that’s used for the entire duration for the film effectively establishes and maintains a macabre atmosphere.

The soundtrack was pretty dire, and that's fairly substantial for horror films, it's probably one of the vital elements that made Argento's films, Deep Red and Suspiria, so acclaimed and relevant. It largely consists of heavy metal pieces, that I'm not a fan of anyway, and it was a wasted opportunity to enhance what was occurring on screen.

There were also noticeable problems with the pacing, certain events felt rather forced, and the last act nearly fell a part in this regard. And although the ending was abrupt and kind of anti-climatic, it really was the most appropriate ending... and that scenario never should have arisen, because with whatever decision they chose probably would have been a bit mediocre.

Also, after almost a year after first seeing it, I still just don't get the title. The fact that Mary is American is not relevant whatsoever, and I see no obvious metaphor. I still think some along the lines of Ave Maria or Hail Mary would have been more fitting, and more striking too.

Another problem that you kind of can't help of noticing is the contrast being the talents of the actors. Tristan Risk, and particularly Katharine Isabelle, are superb and deliver their lines with conviction, clearly conveying their deep understanding of their characters and what each conversation could potentially lead to for them. This is simply not mirrored by the other cast members, and although some, like Paula Lindberg (Ruby Realgirl) are pretty okay, some others like Antonio Cupo (Billy something, basically the strip club owner) are fairly disposable and amateurish.

It's original, and it's refreshing to finally see women behind the camera, not just for horror, but in general, and if there's any inequality in the film industry, then it's this, and attention should be paid to it so it can be somewhat addressed, not the non-existent racial prejudices of the Academy. Anyway, moving away from that the film has a lot of charm to it, it's as if you can tell how much the sisters adore the craft of cinema.
It isn't perfect, it is flawed, yet American Mary always holds a place in my heart for being a terrific attempt at cinema that falls just short of being glorious. And finally, feminism is dealt with appropriately in a horror film, in fact, it's never been handled quite so proficiently.

And as a side note, this is what a good rape-and-revenge film looks like, in this regard it truly puts films like I Spit on Your Grave to absolute shame, it really pales in comparison.