Written by J. Weagle
Appearance is everything.
American Mary is not the film I thought it was going to be, and I mean that in a good way. I went in expecting a quirky little horror film with a plethora of social commentary on beauty and the sick twisted appeal of plastic surgery. What I got instead was a dark horror comedy that offered a daring and refreshing take on the rape revenge sub genre that seems to have made a comeback in recent years, with some body horror thrown in for good measure.
The movie begins with Mary (who is played by the wonderful Katharine Isabelle) as a struggling to make ends meet medical student. Right from the beginning we are attached to Mary, thanks to the near perfect performance delivered by Isabelle who I always thought was an underappreciated Canadian actress. The last time we saw her in such a demanding leading role was in the Ginger Snaps series that to this day remain one of my all time favourite werewolf films. She plays the part well as a very intelligent, sometimes funny, awkward, and towards the end damn right frightening young woman tossed into this underground world of strip clubs, tattoos, and body modification.
The story kicks off when she applies to work nights at a strip club, which leads to her being offered five thousand cash to sew up a man who we are lead to believe did some illegal things. From that point on Mary gains a reputation as the back alley surgeon, and with help from a Betty Boop impersonator and her barbie doll friend, she falls deeper and deeper into the sick and twisted subculture.
All is fine until Mary becomes a victim of sexual assault, and although the rape scene is tame compared to other onscreen rape scenes we have witnessed, the use of music and the camera directly pointed at Isabelle’s face helps drive the emotional impact. This is what separates the film from the pile of other indie horror films that get released every year, the use of emotion. It’s refreshing to, for once, care about a character in a horror film and to not feel as though they are making stupid decisions every step of the way. We relate to Mary, we can show compassion for her as she, from the beginning, always tries to do the right thing. However, from that moment forward the loveable and quirky Mary is dead and her metamorphosis takes place, turning her from sweet girl next door to an emotionless monster on the inside.
The best aspect of American Mary is in its use of the lead, Isabelle. She is the only real stand out star as the other actors in the movie are either not quite as good or just plain awful. With a worse actress as the driving force the film would have most likely fallen into obscurity, but because of the single performance it elevates into something more than just your typical nonsense. It is far from a perfect film, some scenes feel out of place, some dialogue just feels off and the ending felt rushed, but it’s easy to look past that for all that the film does well. Soaked in what feels like an otherworldly atmosphere of a dark subculture of sex and violence dangling under a gothic lampshade, American Mary shows hope for originality in horror.