FEATURE: Shocktober - American Mary

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list hereMinor spoilers ahead in this one (but nothing that didn't get revealed in mainstream reviews).

We live in a time where the question of bodily autonomy is still a major issue, particularly if you happen to be a woman or wish to identify yourself as a different gender. The fight continues over abortion rights, contraception, rape, sexual harassment, sexuality-based bullying - the list goes ever on. A woman controlling what happens to her own body is a complicated issue; the media have their opinion as do the politicians, some women have an opinion over the debates and voice it loudly, other women just carry on. Regardless of your particular stance on the topic, complete female bodily autonomy has not yet been achieved.

Bodily autonomy, particularly of the female variety, is central to American Mary, a sordid take on an American Dream style narrative of an individual battling their society and yearning to achieve their own personal ambition. For Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle), that is becoming a successful surgeon. Unfortunately for Mary, her education debts are spiralling, her bills are piling up and in her desperation, she turns to a local strip club for a job. However, news whispered in Billy (Antonio Cupo), the club owner's ear during her cringeworthy audition finds him putting her surgeon skills to use in mending a torture victim. From there, Mary finds herself unwillingly drawn into the world of body modification.

Mary opens the film trying desperately to cling on to the little control she currently has as her debts begin to climb; she's prepared to do awful things for money and finds them, sickening herself in the process. She's doing this for her own advancement, a way to secure a place in the surgical profession by sticking with the education that will get her there. But then everything changes dramatically as a person in a position of trust within that education system takes away that control, drugging her and then filming himself raping her.

I always bristle when I hear a film described as a rape-revenge film because it's a topic too often insensitively handled (see the recent overtly sexualised marketing for the I Spit on Your Grave 2 for example). Reading that American Mary had been described as a rape-revenge tale had me extremely cautious going into the film despite several people raving at how good it was. Thankfully, I'm with them on this because this is less about the revenge for the rape itself and more about Mary seizing complete control of herself and her work afterwards. Of course, revenge comes into it, but is little more than a plot development along the way to her career in underground body modification.

The rape itself is impressively filmed, refusing to sexualise Mary at all in the process, but focusing on her trauma during the experience as she slowly realises, in her drugged state, what is happening to her. The close-up on her face forces you to suffer that trauma with her; there's no titillation here. It's simple brutality. It's followed by a sequence in which the film completely desensitises the world in line with Mary's point of view; everything is now in cold, blue hues as opposed to the warmer reds and yellows it had been and there's no sound until she slowly comes back to herself. But after that, the rape becomes almost incidental to the rest of the unfolding plot, a catalyst for who Mary becomes but impressively not her defining characteristic. She refuses to play the victim.

For me, this is the point where the film gets really interesting, because it becomes all about Mary fighting to reassert that control over herself by not only controlling her own body, but by controlling other people's. The first and most obvious is what she does to her rapist in order to 'practice' for the body modification surgery she then undertakes. She becomes a roaring success, a twisted example on the rags-to-riches via hard work success story. That control too filters into the characters wanting the body modifications in the first place; they are willingly transforming their bodies for their own personal benefit rather than conforming to the usual social strictures that we count as 'the norm'.

It ties back into that idea about bodily autonomy and who should be in control of it. Regardless of your opinion on body modifications and the results it produces, it's a way of asserting yourself and your identity upon your physical form. The film doesn't judge these decisions but simply presents them as another expression of identity. This is sharply paralleled with Mary's own transformation; unlike her previous surgeries which were simply performed in either what she was wearing or what was available, she gives herself a uniform. Much is made of her applying her make-up before her first consultation and the black apron she wears for her operations. She becomes the 'Bloody Mary' surgeon that everyone in the community is talking about, but it's clearly delineated from her other, more public self.

The treatment of the various bodies on display is also expertly done. The use of nudity here is largely clinical during her surgeries or functional within a certain context. Any major objectification of a female body that occurs is usually in a male fantasy sequence and is appropriately differentiated from the reality of the situation. It's this clinical approach across the board with the material that makes the film so effective. The horror arises out of the intense focus on the surgery that's taking place as well as a general air of menace. The surgical scenes are extremely well-constructed; it's an effective and importantly sparing use of gore that relies on sound more than visuals to leave you unsettled. This is always more terrifying for me because my imagination needs little to no prompting to run wild on such matters.

Katherine Isabelle's performance is so outstanding throughout that she leaves her admittedly weaker co-stars in the shade, except perhaps for Tristan Risk's Beatrice who embodies a confident yet ultimately vulnerable character key to Mary's progression. Antonio Cupo's Billy is also a fascinating addition, opening the film asserting his power over those around him only to slowly lose it as the film goes on. It's a shame that the film suffers for the general woodenness of the rest of the cast. It sucks the tension out of what should be some of the more tightly-wound scenes of the film.

However, for a horror film featuring a female lead, American Mary is a wonderfully refreshing take on the genre, willing to infuse its narrative with some big ideas, a black sense of irony and a neat twist on victimisation. 

- Becky

You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.

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