Female filmmakers are marginalized in every genre, but horror is a particularly male domain. Tod Browning, James Whale, Val Lewton, George Romero, John Carpenter—from the silent era onward, men have shaped the horror movie, often around the sound of a woman screaming. According to Mubi.com, women have directed only about three dozen horror features, the most notable being Kathryn Bigelow's gloomy 1987 vampire thriller Near Dark (Bigelow went on to win an Oscar for The Hurt Locker). Rarer still are horror movies with a genuinely female perspective, which is what makes American Mary, opening Friday for a week-long run at Facets Cinematheque, so unusual. Canadian twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska (who made their feature debut in 2008 with something called Dead Hooker in a Trunk) share with Browning (Freaks) a fearful fascination with human deformity. But American Mary, about an impoverished young medical student who gets sucked into the body modification underground, filters this through a distinctly feminist ideal of controlling one's own body.
They've certainly found a great body in Katharine Isabelle, playing the title character; the opening sequence, scored with a soprano singing Schubert's "Ave Maria," shows Mary Mason in a low-cut black slip and black gloves as she takes a scalpel to the dimpled white skin of a turkey and sutures it back up again. Isabelle, a busy TV actress in Canada, is not only smoking hot but a smart, deft performer; her dry line readings go a long way toward putting across the twins' perverse humor. Mary is the sharpest student in her surgery class, mercilessly picked on by her macho professor, Dr. Grant (David Lovgren), and way behind on her bills. Applying for a job as a stripper, she shows up at a local club in her best lingerie, but her interview takes an unexpected turn when the owner, Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo), offers her five grand in cash to stitch up one of his boys, who's been blinded and carved up by some thugs. Before long, Mary's name gets out, and she receives an unwelcome visit from a woman named Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk) who asks her to help "a nice girl who wants an unconventional operation."
Beatress is the sort of bizarro that Lon Chaney might have played back in the 1920s: obsessed with the old Betty Boop cartoons by Max Fleischer, she's gotten plastic surgery on her lips, nose, cheeks, and brow to make herself look more boop-oop-a-doop. She dresses like the character as well, and speaks in the same squishy-squeaky voice. Beatress promises Mary ten grand to operate on her friend, and Mary, having just lost her waitress job, reluctantly agrees to meet them after hours at an animal hospital where they'll have sterile conditions. The patient, Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindgren), is a doll-like blond who wants to take this resemblance to its logical endpoint and have her nipples and vulva removed. "A doll can be naked and never be sexualized or degraded," explains Ruby. After granting Ruby's wish, Mary orders Beatress not to give her name to anyone, but before long Mary has become a legend in the "body-mod" community and launched a thriving surgical practice out of her apartment. "Bloody Mary," they call her online.
The earliest body-mod movie I can recall is Browning's creepy circus tale The Unknown (1927), whose hero (Chaney) falls for a woman with a deep-seated phobia of men's hands and elects to have his arms amputated by a corrupt surgeon. The Soskas generally celebrate the idea of radical cosmetic surgery, though they're not above satirizing it. Body mods are portrayed as the ultimate narcissists (as Ruby says to Mary, "I don't think it's really fair that God gets to decide what we look like on the outside"). The Soska sisters make a cameo appearance as haughty Russian twins so devoted to one another that they want to exchange their respective left arms. Needing another surgeon for the complicated procedure, Mary appeals to Billy Barker and is paired with an older gentleman who burbles at her in German and at one point references "Dr. Mengele." Yet the twins are overjoyed with the results, as are all of Mary's clients.
Mary takes genuine pride in helping people realize their ideal selves, splitting people's tongues and implanting horns in their foreheads, and this generosity of spirit makes her an anomaly of sorts among horror-movie surgeons. In the male tradition, they're usually mad doctors imposing their wild dreams upon others—who can forget the title character of Frankenstein (1931), stitching together a man from random body parts, or the deranged Dr. Moreau of The Island of Lost Souls (1932), creating weird man-beast hybrids, or the haunted Dr. Genessier of Eyes Without a Face (1960), hoping to graft another woman's face onto that of his disfigured daughter? People are usually trying to escape from these guys, not track them down. By making the surgeon an instrument of self-determination, the Soskas slyly assert that people's bodies are their own, a key argument in prochoice activism.
Unfortunately, there's another story line in American Mary that proves less imaginative and adventurous. (Spoilers follow.) Shortly after Mary operates on Ruby Realgirl, she's invited to attend a social gathering by Dr. Walsh (Clay St. Thomas), who's supervising her residency at a local hospital. Dressed to the nines (in a revealing green gown she's received from Ruby), Mary arrives at what turns out to be a predatory sex party for older professional men at which Dr. Grant drugs and rapes her. This is one of those sleazy scenes that exploit the very cruelty they're supposed to be condemning, which makes the Soskas' outrage seem a little contrived when they roll out the consequences: Mary, hungry for revenge, pays Billy Barker to kidnap Grant, and the movie turns into that most unnecessary of items, a Saw rip-off, as she holds him captive and subjects him to a series of surgical alterations. Playing Grant, David Lovgren gets more dramatic mileage from piteous whimpering than from all his previous dialogue.
You have to wonder why the Soskas felt compelled to choose the well-rutted road of torture porn and spoil such an indelible protagonist. Maybe peer pressure is to blame: in the indie-horror underground, the guys won't take you seriously unless you're extreme, which usually means graphic depictions of human suffering. The last time Grant appears on screen, he's hanging from two hooks sunk into the skin of his back and all his limbs have been amputated; snot pours from his mouth and nose as Mary snaps photos of him for her Web site and delivers one of those cool, casual monologues that movie sadists never tire of. I suppose women have an equal right to be monsters too, but American Mary is a lot more memorable when its heroine is full of grace.