Sunday, February 3, 2013

Women in Horror: American Mary

Mary Mason is an ambitious and focused medical student who is down her luck. Growing increasingly more broke, she desperately needs money and hits rock bottom when she applies to work at a strip club. During the sleazy interview, the club owner asks for her medical expertise when one of his associates is severely injured for an astronomical amount of money in cash. Of course, she performs the illegal surgery and feels sickened, but happy for the money. Later on, Beatress Johnson, a performer from the strip club who looks just like Betty Boop, approaches Mary for a business proposition involving extreme body modification. She refuses at first to focus on her studies, but after being traumatized and alienated by the teacher she truly admired and the medical field as a whole, she assents and throws herself full force into the dark and sometimes bizarre world of illegal body modification.

I have been itching to see American Mary since Jen and Sylvia Soska's panel from last year's San Diego Comic Con. I finally got the chance when the film was featured at LA's Screamfest and subsequently won most of the awards there, including best picture, best director, best actress, best makeup, and best cinematography  The plot and execution of this film is more unique than the majority of the horror films I've seen over the last year. It's truly a breath of fresh air among all the remakes and sequels with twists, turns, and shocking moments. It subverts expectations at every turn and avoids the typical formulaic horror for an unpredictable plot that kept me guessing what would happen. For a movie about surgery, the use of blood and gore is quite restrained and the entire film is beautifully shot. I expected buckets upon buckets of blood, especially after Dead Hooker in a Trunk. The cinematography is polished, gorgeous, and completely different from their previous film. The scenes of surgery are especially ethereal looking, enhanced by the use of Gounod's Ave Maria as background music.

The body modification community could have easily come off as freaks or monsters, but the Soska twins merely present them as normal people with tastes for socially unacceptable appearances. They also worked with people from the Church of Body Modification as consultants and actors to authentically portray their community. Since many of these people's reasons to get this type of surgery is just as, if not more, valid than those getting conventional plastic surgery, it begs the question why many of the procedures are illegal. This community in the film comes off as more welcoming and nice than the "normal" people. The members of the medical community are supposed to be the best and brightest our society has to offer, but are portrayed as manipulative adrenaline junkies that don't think twice about taking advantage of their students. This reversal of expectations provides a new perspective not typically seen in any genre.

The characters also aren't what one would expect. Mary Mason is a focused, driven woman, but she doesn't have many redeeming qualities. Her main motivations are selfish and greedy and her demeanor is largely aloof, detached, and fake. The only real difference in her behavior after the abuse is that an undercurrent of rage runs underneath her coldness. She also goes a bit crazy after embracing her lucrative and illegal career. Despite her flaws, she remains a sympathetic character throughout the film due to the writing and Katharine Isabelle's performance. She's a complex character, being the final girl and the killer at the same time. The rare glimpses of vulnerability and true emotion in Mary are priceless and brought about by the rough looking but genuinely kind hearted bouncer that works at the strip club. Billy is the sleazy strip club owner who regularly victimizes his employees. You wouldn't really expect him to have any redeeming qualities, but he is quite sweet to Mary and really cares about her. Their relationship gives an awkwardly romantic element to the film that adds a sweetness to a very dark film. These characters are far from perfect, but their glimpses of lightness and true emotion is beautiful in the backdrop of crime, jadedness, and violence.

The only problem I have with the film is the pacing. It seems to lose a little steam near the end, but picks up after a shocking turn of events. Everything else is wonderful. Todd Masters' makeup and prosthetics and the avoidance of CGI work in their favor because it looked real and I believe will look better as time goes by. The performances are singular and coupled with the writing are the real stars of American Mary. The characters are the most realistic I have seen on screen, especially in a genre usually rife with stock characters, and I love them, flaws and all. Jen and Sylvia Soska are not only kickass writers and directors, but genuinely nice people who take the time to reach out to their fans. I will watch anything they create from this point on because I know it will be different than anything I've seen and of the highest quality.

My rating: 9.5/10 fishmuffins

No comments: