Content Warning: Sexual assault and surgery.
American Mary (2012) is a female-fronted entry into the body horror genre from Twisted Twins directors Jen and Sylvia Soska. And while body horror movies usually focus on characters losing control of their bodies and being changed and broken by some outside force, American Mary mostly focuses on people finding freedom within themselves through the art of body modification.
Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) is a trainee surgeon under pressure from all directions of her life. While she is very skilled, practises her sutures on turkeys in her free time, and studies hard, she’s still struggling. Aside from financial problems and harassing phone calls, Mary is dealing with an extraordinary amount of pressure from her tutor, Dr Grant (David Lovgren). It seems as though Dr Grant takes every opportunity to pick on Mary and embarrass her in front of her classmates. She clearly knows her stuff, and yet Dr Grant chooses to focus on Mary’s phone going off in class, belittling her, and asserting his dominance over her because she doesn’t act ‘perfectly’. Dr Grant covers his actions by saying he’s trying to push the best out of her, but it’s nothing more than petty bullying.
In a bid to get control of at least one part of her life, Mary applies to work at a strip club, attending an audition with the club’s owner, Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo). However, her audition is cut short when Mary is asked to perform illegal surgery in the club’s basement, no questions asked, for $5,000. Obviously, it’s a risk for Mary to get involved, but for the first time, she’s been handed a real, albeit illegal, solution to the problems in her life. It’s the first risk we see Mary take, but the more she explores this world outside of medical school and the typical expectations of a medical student, the more confident and happier Mary becomes.
Through Mary’s meeting at the strip club, she is introduced to Beatress (Tristan Risk), a body modification-loving Betty Boop look alike. While Beatress has been lucky enough to find someone to carry out her surgeries, her friend Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg), hasn’t been able to find someone to agree to ‘finish’ her. Neither Beatress or Ruby are portrayed as what society would deem conventionally attractive, having altered their appearance so heavily with plastic surgery that they both appear incredibly doll-like. And yet, unlike other movies which focus on plastic surgery, especially when women are involved, they are not made fun of or judged for the way they look. Instead, the focus is on the happiness of both women as they achieve their final dream forms. They want to look on the outside the way they feel on the inside, and the surgery Mary is offering to Ruby will help complete her vision of happiness.
With her money worries behind her, Mary is invited to a party by Dr Walsh as she participates in her surgical residency at the hospital. As her financial problems were causing so many issues for Mary, it’s clear she’s happy to be getting her life back on track as she excels at her residency. For her, the invite to the party is a sign of her success and an indication that Dr Grant may be seeing her as an equal rather than an underling. She knows that no other students are being invited, and so a chance to mingle with her successful peers is just what she needs to improve her career, and set herself on the path she wants to follow without anything else dragging her down.
However, Dr Grant has interpreted Mary’s new-found confidence in the completely wrong way. He perceives her change in attitude and her obvious higher level of personal income to mean that she has gone into prostitution, and as a result, invites her to one of his strange sex parties. Mary is drugged almost as soon as she arrives, and when Dr Grant offers to help her, he takes her into his bedroom to sexually assault her while filming it.
There’s a lot of reasons why what happens at the party leads to Mary quitting medical school the next morning. She needs to distance herself from the men who think this type of behaviour is acceptable, and chances are she knows it is unlikely that she will be believed over some of the most prestigious staff at the medical school. She knows she will be unable to work closely with Dr Grant and Dr Walsh, and she will no longer be able to look up to them as a beacon of the perfect life and career she has been longing for.
This change in Mary’s character also allows her to break free from the pressures Dr Grant has been placing on her. She no longer needs his approval because she recognises that he is a terrible, flawed person, and not this perfect surgeon image he has been portraying to Mary and the rest of the class.
Through Beatress and Ruby, Mary learns all about the underground body modification community, and Mary decides to use these skills to take her revenge on Dr Grant. Dr Grant sees Mary as a wannabe surgeon, whose skills will never match his own, and yet she has proved herself very proficient in the work she has already done in her side job.
Mary sees the move into body modification surgery as a freedom from the life she thought she wanted, and a step towards a happier life, free from the constant hounding and belittling from Dr Grant. We find out later that Dr Grant has done what he did to Mary to many other women, so he clearly believes himself invincible and unlikely to be reported or caught. We see him for what he really is after Mary has him kidnapped – a snivelling, crying, pathetic mess who doesn’t even try to defend himself because he knows he’s irredeemable.
For Mary, getting revenge on Dr Grant allows her closure on the old part of her life. She gets to shut the door on medical school, all the times she fought to please Dr Grant in the classroom, and her career as a legitimate surgeon. Instead, she finds a new way to help people by offering body modification surgeries in secret. By helping others find true happiness, Mary is able to find more happiness in herself. She’s trained for years to be a surgeon at this point, but rather than letting Dr Grant completely ruin her life, she uses her revenge on him as a chance for rebirth. She now gets to use her impressive set of skills for the good of others, as well as enhancing her unconventional career.
Mary decides to reject the normal path which is usually set out for young doctors and surgeons, and instead follow her own path. And in turn, she helps others follow their path to happiness. Many of Mary’s patients in the film were real body modification enthusiasts, who have decided to reject the societal norm of what something ‘should’ look like, and instead follow their instinct on what will make them happy.
Mary could have decided to move to another medical school and restart her career somewhere else, but Dr Grant’s party has shown her that the only way she will be truly happy is to rely on herself rather than the approval of others. Mary and her patients have a lot in common in the way that they resorted to rather unconventional methods to finally be the true versions of themselves.
Rather than kill Dr Grant after kidnapping him, Mary decides to keep him locked in a storage room. This allows Mary to perfect her surgeries on Dr Grant before carrying them out on her actual patients. She uses Dr Grant for as long as possible to perfect her skills and ensure a better life for herself. Dr Grant is still helping her be a better surgeon, but on Mary’s terms now. With every piece of Dr Grant that Mary slices away, she becomes a stronger person.
by Kim Morrison
Categories: Women Film-makers