Body Horror Gets Grafted to Pulp Crime Drama in American Mary (2012)

As horror subgenres go, body horror is a tough nut to crack. At its best, body horror explores the dysfunctional nexus between humanity's abstract concept of self and the imperfect, messy nature of organic existence. Unfortunately, portraying this confused, distraught and sometimes psychotic relationship in a cinematic narrative is far from easy, since the physical dimension of body horror (i.e., gore, decay and disfigurement) is much easier to depict than the psychological; hence, many filmmakers explore body horror through more mundane and straightforward plot structures. Such is the case of American Mary, a 2012 Canadian horror film that was written and directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska. Click below for my complete review.

Even though it's classified as a horror movie, American Mary tells a story directly from the files of a pulp gangster magazine: a medical professional--in this case, a medical student named Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) who is buried under a mountain of debt--becomes drawn into the dark underworld of organized crime and clandestine surgical procedures through a series of unfortunate incidents. Yet what starts out for Mary as patchwork jobs on injured criminals quickly becomes a career in extreme back-alley body modification.

Given how commonplace body modification is in contemporary pop culture, I'm surprised that the horror genre hasn't done more to portray the ghoulish aspects of this practice. Then again, after watching American Mary, I can understand why: For as much gore as I've seen over the years, this flick made me shudder and wince in ways few other films have simply because many of its characters want to have gruesome, unnerving things done to them. Sure, American Mary also has a revenge subplot that's extremely grisly in its own right, but it's Mary's assortment of less-than-legal patients that give this film its stomach-churning, skin-crawling kick. There's even a montage scene that shows a series of actual examples of body modification to remind the audience of just how real body modification is. (Both the montage and the revenge subplot gave me flashbacks to Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), one of the earliest examples of body horror cinema.)

Beatress (left) and Ruby Realgirl.

I can see why the Soska sisters used a formulaic "mob doctor" plot to explore body horror, because it gives viewers something familiar upon which to frame their understanding of a narrative that delves into the grotesque and taboo. On the other hand, I left the film feeling that a much more ambitious and satisfying body horror story could have been made from the perspective of one who is obsessed with extreme body modification. Isabelle's performance of Mary's psychological deterioration over the course of the movie is spot-on, but the show is stolen by two of her initial patients, Beatress (Tristan Risk) and Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg). Those characters provide fleeting glimpses into the inner universes of people who pay money to have their flesh carved, stitched and molded to match their personal neuroses, and such places prove to be quite warped and terrifying in their own right.

American Mary isn't for all tastes, but gorehounds who are interested in seeing a horror movie's interpretation of body modification won't be disappointed.


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