To me, Jen and Sylvia Soska are a huge pioneering force for women in horror, particularly when it comes to body horror. I first discovered this brilliant Canadian duo when I stumbled across American Mary, and they completely blew me away.
American Mary tells the story of Mary Mason, a medical student working hard to become a surgeon. She is struggling to make ends meet, trying to make sure that her family doesn’t worry, and dealing with a huge prick of an instructor in her classes. Desperate for cash, she takes a job at a strip club to make ends meet. What follows is a story that delivers something for absolutely every type of horror fan, as Mary is drawn into the underground world of body modification that needs her particular set of skills.
What makes this story stand out from the torture porn type of story is…well, the story. This film has a beautiful story arc, starting with a wide-eyed, somewhat naïve Mary, and showing her descent into the underbelly of society. This is an original tale that will leave you reeling, wondering, as Mary does, how the hell we got here. Mary is smart and capable right from the beginning, believing that she can handle any situation, and that she is in control. She wants to be at the top of her game, the opening scenes of the movie showing her practicing sutures on raw meat at home alone into the late hours of the night. Equally so, in her work at the hospital, she knows fully what this job takes. It means telling people that their loved ones have died, it means making life or death decisions, and it means not letting any bullshit that you don’t have time for get to you.
And in one moment, when Mary attends a party, the audience sees what will happen. As soon as she walks through that door, you can feel it. I think that the party scene in this movie will speak to a lot of women. It is a moment that makes your skin crawl, and makes you wish that you could be there to get her home safe.
But there isn’t someone to do that for Mary, who was blindsided. All she wanted was respect from her colleagues, and to be taken seriously in her profession. She is used to feeling like she has a lid on everything, that her life is going down a certain path. Which is why, when Mary feels her life slip away from her, she takes control and builds it back the only way she knows how. She takes the power back, and gets the life that she wanted, just a version of it that she didn’t expect. I think the fact that Mary is a surgeon makes her transition all the more believable; she always had a sort of hardness in her, it’s just that the focus of that hardness is being redirected in order to achieve her goals.
This is a movie that doesn’t fit easily into a box, which is what makes it so watchable. It is not a straightforward rape revenge film, nor is it a straight up body horror film. In fact, many of the surgeries are voluntary, and I think that in this way, Mary can be content with her new life for a while. She is still a surgeon, and she is still helping people. She is helping people who don’t feel complete, feel whole and comfortable in their own skin. There is such a subtle but effective discussion here about gender, and about sexuality, and how not everyone gets exactly what they need and desire from their bodies. What the Soskas do here is something that is different for body horror; instead of having the plot become the body horror, like the later Saw entries or the Hostel franchise, the body horror is a solid part of the plot.
Mary is portrayed by Katharine Isabelle, a Canadian actress well-known in the horror community for her work on Ginger Snaps (eeeeeee this movie makes me squirm with Canadian pride!). Her performance here is absolutely phenomenal, and she manages to show this profound change that Mary undergoes while still keeping the core of the character there. Whatever Mary is doing, she is aware, and alert. There is no stopping her, and you can still see the character that you love at the start of the movie inside the new version of her all the way to the end. That is something that is often missing for me in revenge movies. It is powerful in that the trauma changes people so much, and it becomes a part of them. But for Mary, she does question herself from time to time, and who she is is still there. She will not be victimized, and that much is clear even from the very start of the movie. She is fiercely independent, and very proud of who she is and how hard she has worked to get there.
With enough blood and guts to satisfy the gore hounds, this gritty, dark, and very brutal look at feminism and gender roles is a gem that you need to see to believe. Sit back, enjoy, and watch the moment about halfway through, when you think that the movie has reached its logical conclusion, and then pushes forward into game changing territory that will leave your jaw on the floor.
I am so excited for Jen and Sylvia Soska’s next project, a remake of David Cronenberg’s Rabid, which I think will really give them something to chew on with their history of solid body horror. I’m also looking forward to checking out the new Black Widow comic series that they’re working on. Keep bringing the feminist voices, ladies! Can’t wait to see what you come up with!