★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Brazen, wicked, and nasty, the medical-revenge flick American Mary takes a med student down a very dark career path as a chop-shop extreme make-over doc.
Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska
This is a movie that combines two of the most squirm-inducing and difficult to watch tropes in horror: the rape-revenge movie and the medical surgery horror film. Each element on its own could send someone straight to the off switch, as the fear of the former goes to the core terrors for women, and the fear of going under the knife for… well… everybody. I will suggest to those who have a strong stomach for such things to stick with it, as it is a clever, sexy, and smart horror/thriller. Jeff Dean and I both listed American Mary as one of our favorite Medical Horror Films in Podcast Episode 63.
While I would not say that American Mary pulls off its plot tastefully, as it is most definitely a movie designed to shock and disturb you with its grotesqueness, I will suggest that it is handled with the highest level of craft. Importantly, this film has a strong feminine point of view. It is directed by the decidedly Gothic duo, the Soska Sisters, and features a bad-ass protagonist, Mary (Katherine Isabelle) who is a mix of victim, antihero, and eventually, psychopath.
(Moderate plot spoilers ahead)
The story follows Mary, a financially struggling medical student, who is brilliant in the classroom but has constant difficulties making ends meet. She is belittled and harassed by her professor, Dr. Grant (David Lovegren) who clearly identifies her as his star pupil, and rewards her with badgering and insults to motivate her scholastic performance.
Mary desperately looking to make some extra cash, responds to an ad at a local strip club. During her job interview, which was going about as well as you would expect a strip club dancer interview would go, the club owner Billy (Antonio Cupo) finds out that she is a surgical intern, and asks her to help patch up a guy that he had one of his goons mess up. Strictly off-book, of course. But, as unseemly as it was, Mary earned enough to fend off her creditors.
Soon afterward, Mary is paid a visit by a very odd-looking woman, Beatress (Tristan Risk) who has gone through some grotesque plastic surgery to make her look like Betty Boop. Word has gotten out that Mary was doing underground surgery, and there is a culture of extreme body modifications that normal surgeons won’t participate in… and they’re desperate. Mary has to overcome her disgust and fear of performing these operations, but the money is good, and she is good at it. She becomes something of a chop-shop surgery sensation, and the word gets out to the body-mod community that she is the ringer who will do anything, for a price.
Meanwhile, as she is mulling over dropping out of med-school to be a full-time surgeon to the misfits, she is invited to a party with the surgical staff at the hospital where she has taken up her residency. For the audience, or at least this audience member, alarm bells started going off. For all of his bluster and vitriol that he spewed at Mary, Dr. Grant’s behavior just oozed of disdainful lust. He’d never given Mary a reason to think she’d be welcomed as part of the surgical staff, so Mary should have been warier. Out comes the rohypnol, and down goes Mary, and as noted before, this is a very difficult scene to watch.
Dr. Grant just fucked with the wrong woman though. Literally. As this is a rape-revenge film, Mary is about as well equipped to dish out the cruelest revenge imaginable, and boy does she go to town on him. I won’t divulge the how’s and the when’s of how this unfolds, but it both represents some audience and character catharsis, and the slide into wickedness for Mary. The rest of her business is going well too, and a good portion of the back half of the movie involves Mary trying to keep a lid on her secret enterprise.
I would be curious to know from our female fans if the revenge portion makes up for the horror of the rape. Movies, like I Spit on Your Grave, Ms. 45, and Last House on the Left, are probably the most famous examples of exploitation of the trope. And they were directed and written by men. Revenge, an excellent movie released last year, and American Mary are written and directed by women. Both have brutal and unflinching rape scenes, and dish out the revenge in blood by the gallon.
Does this satisfy a female audience? It worked for me. I bought into the revenge and felt a bit of guilty relief in watching it happen. Our own writer, Amy Faust, who loves horror movies, particularly the kill by the dozen kind of franchise films, will avoid movies with rape scenes at all costs. Even the ones that are well respected. It’s a bridge too far. And, do women want to be forewarned about this kind of content in advance?
Some of the material in this movie wandered, and the police investigation seemed to be genuinely dim-witted. The suggestion of a romantic notion with the detective was not particularly well-executed. You also could pretty much see where this train was going, as each character fulfilled their destinies from where I pegged them. That said, this did feel like a very original movie, wholly a Soska Sisters unique take, and it promises great things from the duo to come.
American Mary also represents high modern female Goth culture quite well. Katharine Isabelle strikes an imposing figure in her black butcher smock scrubs and high-heeled pumps. With her long black hair with bangs, and pale skin, she’s a Goth Goddess, and a vengeful one at that. This movie stands side by side with May, Hard Candy, and not surprisingly, one of our favorite werewolf films, Ginger Snaps (Which also starred Isabelle) as the standard-bearers for female-forward modern indie Goth Horror.
American Mary is rated R, but could EASILY have been NC-17, for torture, mutilation, grotesque surgeries, nudity, and rape. It probably rates a 20 out of 25 on our Bridge Too Far Scary Scale. It is available for rent, streaming on Amazon, You Tube, and Google.