On this episode of The Nightly Chill, we look at body-horror/drama American Mary!
American Mary is a fun, ambitious, and somewhat messy movie that follows Katharine Isabelle as Mary Mason, a desperate medical student turned back-alley plastic surgeon.
CLASSIC TUNE, NEW SPIN
The short of it is that American Mary is easily and often at its best when alluding to classic horror stories of mad scientists, their creatures, and a world that doesn’t understand them. Brought to us by the twin set of writers/directors Jen and Sylvia Soska, American Mary is less a modern horror movie and more so a quick-paced drama that dives into the darker side of medical school and the subculture of body modification.
Katharine Isabelle’s Mary stands in for characters like Victor Frankenstein, her eager and willing patients for the monster, and malicious professors, cops, and slighted significant others for the mob that eventually comes for them with torches and pitchforks.
And for however long a scene dedicates itself to questioning Mary’s actions, exploring that moral and ethical gray area surrounding extreme body modifications, the film succeeds. This modern, grounded, and dramatic spin on the sorts of stories often relegated to the sort of schlocky fun seen in post-World War II horror comics and B-films affords the movie some narrative flexibility. Allowing it to play with a strange premise while simultaneously digging at meatier themes that the stories in old comics like Tales from the Crypt didn’t have the time (or desire) to explore in greater depth. In this case, Mary is often troubled by her conflicting desire to pay for medical school and her increasingly viable career as an illegal surgeon capable of sculpting her patients in almost every way imaginable.
However, the film is somewhat derailed by an unnecessary subplot that focuses on Mary’s revenge against a man who sexually assaults her. This subplot does nothing to flesh out the main plot or themes of the film. Instead it only seems to exist to steer the film, temporarily, into the realm of body horror.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that these detours damage the overall narrative by twisting Mary into a somewhat malicious monster rather than the sympathetic and flawed protagonist she is for much of the film. And it proves not just unnecessary but quickly forgotten and redundant as another plot point organically derived from the film’s main narrative not only covers similar ground but ultimately leads to the film’s climax.
In hindsight, it feels as if this revenge subplot only exists to pad what would have otherwise been a sub-90 minute run time. But an 80-minute cut would have been better paced and structured with less muddled characterization than the final 103-minute version that ultimately saw release. If anything, these twenty-or-so minutes might have been better spent further exploring Mary’s central moral and ethical dilemma.
REFURBISHING THE WHEEL
Problematic subplots aside, American Mary is still a fun watch that more often than not feels like an ambitious take
on a classic horror story. And while it doesn’t completely succeed in its attempt at reinventing the wheel–and is at times shallow and out of sync with the rest of the film–Mary’s journey from struggling student to respected artist to condemned monster is a compelling narrative. And one that is sure to engage fans of both horror and drama who take my advice to CHILL with American Mary.