Content Warning: the film I am discussing has a rape-revenge underpinning. Please note I will briefly outline the plot and reaction.
In 2012, filmmaking twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska released American Mary. Their previous feature-length entitled Dead Hooker in a Trunk released in 2009. The Soskas create an updated rape-revenge horror film that nods its roots but also re-envisions them. Mary Mason is a medical student, struggling to pay her bills. Answering an online job posting at a strip club, she is pulled into doing underground medical procedures and body modifications. Katherine Isabelle, who plays Mary, may be best know for her role as Ginger in the Ginger Snaps Trilogy and her role on NBC’s Hannibal as Margot Verger.
In her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol Clover argues that most horror films assume that the audience of their film is made up of young men. She is speaking about rape-revenge films from the 1970s and 1980s, such as I Spit on Your Grave (1978), foregrounding the manner in which rape-revenge films centralize the perspective of the victim/hero over the rapist (152). Clover writes, “I have argued that the center of gravity of these films lies more in the reaction (the revenge) than the act (the rape), but to the extent that the revenge fantasy derives its force from some degree of imaginary participation in the act itself, in the victim position, these films are predicated on cross-gender identification of the most extreme, corporeal sort” (154). American Mary establishes a rape-revenge film that does foreground Mary’s experience. It is the manner in which Mary gets her revenge the reframes the rape-revenge plot. She creates horrors through her skills as a surgeon to enact vengeance. Mary ensures that her rapists’ exterior reflects the monstrosity of his interior—his arrogant brutality. He is locked into partial body. Whereas Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein creates a fully functioning monster, Mary Mason constructs a lump of flesh that she can experiment upon. Frankenstein’s experimentation is to preserve and create life, while Mary’s is about destruction.
Mary’s work with her other clients embody the tension between creation and destruction in that her body modification work. She does the most extreme procedures including the ones other modification surgeons refuse. In their guest appearance in the film, the Soska twins play sisters seeking to tighten their bond by having their left arms removed and swapped and have implants in their foreheads. These surgeries and modifications represent for the squeamish and the vast majority of viewers a type of destruction—a glee at deconstructing the human body. But for Mary’s clients, these modifications are creative forces and affirm their lives—they demonstrate the pleasure through pain principle. For Ruby Realgirl having Mary modify her body to appear doll-like, Ruby can have a measure of control in the ways in which other people sexualize her body. So these modifications are not merely release valves but can be a vital mechanism for an individual sense of self.
Essentially, American Mary may be a rape-revenge horror film, but it is also a film deeply concerned with representations of women, female bodies, and sexual violence. It highlights questions of defining monstrosity. Is Mary the monster for her disturbing and brutal revenge on her rapist? In Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), J. Jack Halberstam writes, “The monster, in fact, is where we come to know ourselves as never-human, as always between humanness and monstrosity” (37). What this film demonstrates is that people can and are pushed to the limits frequently by other people and by the circumstances of their lives.
American Mary is worth checking out, even as it will make you cringe, squirm, and incredibly uncomfortable.