The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


American Mary

I love horror movies but, in all honesty, very few of them dazzle me. It's a fantastic genre, yet also one that makes it easy for filmmakers to get lazy. How many slashers and devil children and monsters in the woods can we take? For this reason, I get very, very excited when I see a fright flick with the courage to add something different to the mix. And this is why I want to tell you about American Mary. Directed by twins Jen and Sylvia Soska (whose debut, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, is unseen by me, but won't be for long), the film is a shocking bit of feminist-themed horror.

Katharine Isabelle gives a dynamic performance as Mary Mason, an attractive young medical student who plans to become a surgeon. She is committed to learning, although her professor gives her a hard time. Broke, and in desperate need of money to pay for her education, Mary applies for a job at a strip club run by Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo). During her interview, an incident happens in the club that requires medical attention. Billy pays Mary $5,000 to perform an impromptu operation. She subsequently gets a reputation for “underground” surgical procedures. Mary travels further down this road - much further – after an unpleasant run-in with some of the doctors at the medical college. Let's just say that body modifications, both wanted and unwanted, become her specialty.

American Mary is a before/after film, and that's where it gets its horror from. What I mean is that the first half shows Mary before her transformation. She is smart, but a little meek and perhaps a bit too trusting. As she is thrust into a menacing underworld, the foreignness of it all overwhelms her (and us, as we mentally place ourselves in her shoes). The second half of the movie shows her after a devastating experience taps into her dark side. Suddenly, the underworld that seemed so unpleasant affords her opportunities for both revenge and, in an odd way, success on her own terms. Right after an act of cruelty strips her power away, Mary finds an all-new, terrifying kind of power. Katherine Isabelle effectively conveys this change from the inside, while the Soskas invent cleverly unnerving ways of depicting it from the outside.

I saw two related themes running throughout the film. The first is of female victimization. Mary becomes a victim, then decides that she needs to stand up for herself, to send the message that victimizing a woman is not okay. We've seen that in other films, yet it's still a powerful idea. The other, newer theme is that body modification may be a way of de-sexualizing oneself – or at the very least taking control of how one is seen sexually. Mary's largely female clients want strange procedures done, and the film suggests that these women may, at some level, be combating the fetishistic way men look at them. Guys tend to leer most strongly at women who have a stereotypical sense of physical “perfection.” By radically modifying their bodies, women can take away that fetishized image and create a unique, highly personalized kind of beauty. The movie additionally has the subtle indication that Mary is doing the modifications to help her female clientele empower themselves against the lechery of men. Of course, she performs some body modification on guys too, but that's against their will.

American Mary is not perfect. A few dream-like sequences are a bit confusing, and a plot twist in the final few minutes would have had a touch more power had it been set up differently. You know what, though? I don't care if there are a few imperfections. That fits in perfectly with some of the story's themes. Besides, American Mary is well-acted and thoroughly creepy, with ideas that go deeper than you normally get in genre fare. If you believe in the artistry of horror cinema - and its ability to be bold, provocative, and daring – then this is a movie that demands your immediate attention.

Note: American Mary is available on VOD starting May 16. Check your favorite VOD outlet for details. It will be released theatrically on May 31.

American Mary is rated R for strong aberrant violent content including disturbing images, torture, a rape, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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