For the record, I don’t like torture-porn. There are a couple of films that flirt with the sub-genre that I admire. This is one of them.

American Mary

Don’t ever devalue what you do, Mary.

I don’t find most horror films that depend on torture and the threat of surgical devices scary, so I suppose that’s first and foremost why I avoid them. A majority of the time, I find them offensive, and at the very least, I don’t want to spend 90 minutes feeling just repulsed. If I’m going to feel like vomiting during a film, I’d also like it to have value as a narrative, in its characters, and beautiful cinematography and design, so that I can be repulsed and rewarded for my efforts. But these are just my preferences, and I respect those that find their bliss in this genre. I do think you’re a little weird (weirder than me, at least), but I don’t think less of you.

When I popped this on it was for Katherine Isabelle. If you watched Ginger Snaps with me, you’ll remember her. She was younger then, wearing slightly more clothes (just slightly). I also noticed that two women named Jen and Sylvia Soska, who I had never heard of, were the women behind it, and settled in to happily give it a go. You don’t see a lot of ladies directing torture films. Maybe they’d figure out what I didn’t like about them and fix it for me. Maybe it’d be trash. When I blast through the suggested Horror section on Netflix, I don’t discriminate, I just press play.

This was the best surprise a feminist, body-positive, Katherine Isabelle-loving, horror connoisseur could get. And though I hesitate to recommend this to all of you (maybe many of you – it requires a strong stomach), I do hope some of you will find it in you to try. I think its statement is important, its philosophy sound, and its filmmakers – gifted.

In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman’s butchery is the problem, cleaned up neatly in a suit and clear, plastic raincoat. While Mary may have some psychopathic tendencies (and she’s worried about them – they affect her), her surgical skills are the solution. Like Bateman, she also “cuts up girls,” and she’ll do boys, too – the difference being, she does right by each client. What they want, and the world refuses to provide, she gives.

Body modification is definitely not my bag, but I appreciate it.

Twins American Mary Watercolor Illustration
“Twins” | Original Art by Alex Landers

I have tattoos, I dye my hair, I change myself all the time. We are human beings in flux, and the ability to alter one’s physical appearance can be an expression of confidence and strength (*Yes, there’s another argument here, as this world walks a line with body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and the like. But this film very nicely presents the healthy, positive functions that the body modification movement can provide for growing a strong sense of self, and this analysis is going to focus on that notion. We can deconstruct the darker side of the psychology another day). In American Mary, body modification is a means to self-realization and actualization. Although Mary never performs any “enhancements” on herself, she most certainly is benefiting from the philosophy behind it.

*Spoiler Alert* (I hate that, but it seems polite to let you know) Mary is raped. Mary is drugged, taken advantage of, and victimized. This could ruin any woman, any person. Mary doesn’t let it ruin her.

Of course, rebuilding confidence in the real world should probably not be done by performing illegal surgeries, kidnapping men, or, well, using them to “build your portfolio.” But in the fantasy, fairy-tale land of horror, we can hop on Mary’s vengeance train without guilt or judgment for an hour or so, and feel an elevated sense of relief. Relief that we don’t have to be sorry. That we don’t have to take the cards that are dealt to us. That we have some power over our own lives, our choices, and most importantly, the image we construct of ourselves.

The most important thing Mary’s surgical professor teaches her is that surgeons can’t make mistakes. The medical world is harshly critical, especially of its best. She takes that to heart. She also remembers what that world did to her, and what it lacked.

Then she creates a space that is free of that particular judgment and cruelty. And despite the nature of things that go on there, it is much lighter, much brighter, than anything encountered at the hospital. Mary has not become just a surgeon, but something more like hope. Something greater than simply what happened to her.

This is the speech Mary gives in voiceover, which we surmise is for her clients. I’m positive this is actually Mary’s mantra to herself. 

This is about you, and how you can best express yourself to the world. There are numerous procedures outlined here, but please, don’t feel limited to them. The most important thing is that you’re happy and comfortable with yourself. I know you may have come up against some harsh criticisms and judgments in the past, but you can feel confident that you’re free of all such notions here. I can assure you that you’ll receive your procedure in a safe and supportive environment. And at a reasonable cost; it is difficult to put a price on feeling complete though, isn’t it?

Best Scene:

The heartfelt speech Lance, the strip club’s bouncer-turned-doctor-bodyguard, gives to Mary after a particularly “rough” event. It’s genuine, and loving, and it captures the essence of the film in a minute or so. She shouldn’t devalue what she does. And he bought her a chocolate milkshake, because she certainly isn’t vanilla.

Other Things to Notice:

Mary starts doing this for student loans. I find that so believable, it’s not even funny. The things I would do to be free of lifelong educational debt.

One of the body-mods Mary performs is, to put it bluntly, the removal of a woman’s identifying sex parts. She wants to look like a doll. The best part of this is not a “that’s weird” moment (which I find so often to be a problem – the spectacle element of torture-based horror), but her reasoning behind the change. Although it may seem bizarre or horrifying to the average viewer, as a woman, I find her reasoning understandable. Hell, if you’ve been damaged in any way, sexual or emotional or physical, removing the part of you that put you in that situation? That makes some sense. Wanting to be seen visually as more than your gender? That’s a social issue that’s relevant, and important, and I think something we can all empathize with. Don’t we all just want to be seen for who we are on the inside?

This film is beautiful to look at, well-written, wholly original, and well-acted from start to finish. It may not suit your tastes (and if you are a torture-porn expert, you may find it too tame), but what it accomplishes in a dark room with a mess of blood, body parts, and stainless steel cutlery, is really gorgeous. Inside and out.

*American Mary is currently streaming on Netflix*

If You Like It, Watch:

Hostel: This is the other bit of torture-porn I have come to respect in recent years. I started out writing a thesis on why I hated it. I ended up writing its defense. This is wickedly bloody, sickening, and it is not for anyone that isn’t truly interested in the genre. But I find it to be top-tier, and one of Eli Roth’s best.

Hannibal (TV – Season 2): If you can’t get enough Katherine Isabelle, this is a great place to satisfy the urge. Plus, you should have been watching this anyway – it’s been the best show on network television in years. And yes, I’m livid that they’ve cancelled it. But, if you prefer, she does make an appearance in Freddy vs. Jason (no hate, just love). *Streaming on Amazon Prime*

Up Next:

I think we’ve waited long enough – let’s give the Master some love, shall we? The Wes Craven Weekend starts on Thursday.

The People Under The Stairs

*click for the trailer*

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