Sexy and horrific, shocking and thoughtful, gorgeous and freakish, humorous and disturbing, American Mary sent a blast of fresh air through FrigthtFest back in August where it wowed the horror crowd. It opens in selected UK cinemas today, with the DVD and Blu-Ray release following shortly on 21 January.
Katharine Isabelle (Ginger in John Fawcett and Karen Walton’s 2000 Ginger Snaps) plays Mary Mason, a medical student whose moral signposts are pushed further and further out by financial necessity as she is drawn into the underground world of illegal surgeries and extreme body modification. The second feature by Vancouver twins Jen and Sylvia Soska, following Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009), it is a boldly original conflagration of rape-and-revenge story, psychotic doctor/sadistic nurse characters and fetishist world with a feminist twist. Mary may indeed appear in sexualised fetish outfits, but she is no typical victim or mere eye candy. Disenchanted and angry against those she used to look up to, she uses her fine skills with a scalpel to stand up to the authority figures who have abused their power.
American Mary is a film with tremendous heart as well as terrific cinematic qualities. Complex and morally ambiguous, Mary is capable of repulsive acts, but never loses our sympathy. The body mod characters are handled sensitively, with the Betty Boop-like Beatress Johnson and Barbie-wannabe Ruby Realgirl equally grotesque, fascinating and moving. Ruby Realgirl in particular is a tragic character, provoking only violent disgust when she finally achieves the mass-market doll’s asexual sexiness she had longed for so much. In that as well as its main character’s story, American Mary brilliantly deals with the contradictions and pressures, but also the possibilities and variations, of modern female identity.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Jen and Sylvia Soska and Katharine Isabelle about the monsters of the filmmaking industry, the importance of Ginger Snaps and making a feminist horror film.
Virginie Sélavy: American Mary seems like a big leap from Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009). What changed?
Jen: We had a little bit of money (laughs). A tiny bit more. But we knew we had no money when we made Dead Hooker in a Trunk so we picked grindhouse filmmaking, so hey, if there’s a few flaws that’s OK, that’s the style. With this one we wanted to show people that that’s not all we’re capable of. It’s more of a love letter to European and Asian cinema, especially as we’re such big fans of horror. Horror movies can be beautiful and operatic, I was really proud to be able to do that with the second film.
Sylvia: Dead Hooker in a Trunk was really to say, ‘here we are’, and American Mary was to say, ‘here is what we can do’. The main thing that changed was us in every way. When we made Dead Hooker in a Trunk we were super young, we were very ambitious, our hearts were on our sleeves, you can really see that. And then in American Mary, we’ve seen a lot of monsters, we’ve battled a lot of demons…
Jen: …and now we’ve become psychotic surgeons
Sylvia: … and we’re little bit pissed off about it! (laughs)
Yes, I read in an interview that what happens to Mary is a parallel for what’s happened to you in the world of filmmaking.
Sylvia: Very much so. It just became a little more honest than I originally intended because we wrote it in two weeks, and I was thinking, I just need to put something in there that I can relate to, and I put a lot of personal stuff in there. And when you put a lot of personal stuff in a film, it’s more than just you who sees it. It was nice to have that kind of dialogue because I know a lot of working women come into contact with a few monsters, even working men, and it was nice to hang those monsters up in a storage locker.
American Mary can be described as a rape-and-revenge story to some extent. Did you want to bring a fresh spin on that sub-genre?
Jen: I think the way we shot it was definitely something we wanted to put a spin on. And to say that it’s rape-revenge, I think that Mary went through a lot of things in the film that kind of tear away at her, and no one event is more than the other: having to compromise her morals with the surgery at the beginning and then the surgery with Ruby, and then finally those two sacrifices that she makes to continue with her medical profession, and then she finds out that the people she’s idolising are not exactly what she was hoping for.
But most rape scenes are shot to be completely gratifying to men, and we even had some notes, ‘you’ve got to make sure that Katie’s tits come out at some point’, and we said ‘absolutely not’ because then, not that I have something against nudity, but the main thing that everybody would be talking about would be, ‘oh here’s Katharine’s breasts, oh my god, how fantastic’.
Sylvia: And considering how rape is one of those things that is rampant in our society, and almost shameful to even mention, if you show it in the horrific light that it is and people are like, ‘it is a very long and upsetting scene’, I’m like, ‘yeah, because if you are in that situation you don’t get to cut away’. A lot of it is on her expression and on his expression. I love watching how difficult it is for people to watch because it is realistic, it is real horror, and it is what a horror film should have.
It was a huge and welcome contrast to rape scenes in some of the films that showed at FrightFest last August. Do you feel you’ve made a feminist horror film?
Jen: Very much so. When we have films like Twilight, that go under the guise of ‘this is a female’s film’, my god, I hope that’s not a female’s film, because I think back in the dark ages a woman defined herself by who she’s with, and men defined themselves by what they do professionally, and to go back to pining over two guys, what about your own life? The writer of Twilight said that she was a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which just blew my mind because this is a very self-assertive woman who is in charge of her own destiny with some guys in the background. We also took the crap of why doesn’t Mary leave with the guy at the end, or why does she not get the guys to fight her battles for her. I think there is such a lack of women fighting their own battles that are portrayed in films.
Sylvia: Yeah, it’s an agenda of making women seem weaker and subservient and I just couldn’t stand that, especially after the horrific event that happens between her and her mentor, people are like, ‘why doesn’t she cry?’ And I’m like, ‘how many movies have you seen where something horrific happens and the female character is crying and then calling someone else to help her?’ No, I don’t want to see that anymore.
Katharine, do you feel you play a feminist heroine in the film?
Katharine: I absolutely do. I’ve done a few horror movies and it’s absolutely refreshing. The character of Mary on paper has no redeemable qualities. She’s not that pleasant, she’s not that kind, she has no friends, she has no family. She’s very narcissistic and self-absorbed, and that was refreshing in itself. I tried my best to make the character likeable without sweetening anything, without dumping any radical rigid feminist plotlines and themes! (laughs) I think it was the most true-to-life character that I’ve ever had the opportunity to portray because all the time in film women are, like Sylvia said earlier, those sort of easy bake kind of cookie images, like the slut, the tease, the good girl next door. And to have a character that was so multi-dimensional, that didn’t have any particular redeeming qualities, but was still likeable, was still strong, was still interesting and stood up for herself and gave not one fuck about anyone else, or what anyone else thought, or what anyone else expected of her, is something that I think we need to see more of in film and in society in general.
You played another very important horror female character in Ginger Snaps. She was also something refreshingly new.
Katharine: Yeah, I’m really blessed to have been given those two girls, Ginger and Mary. In Ginger Snaps, I was 17, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. But that’s what she says in that movie, a girl can only be a bitch, a slut or the girl next door, or something like that. And it kind of came full circle for me with American Mary, it’s like maybe that’s what would happen to Ginger if she didn’t end up being a werewolf – she’d be a weird psychotic surgeon! (laughs)
Sylvia: That’s really interesting because when I was a teenage girl Jen and I were called the Fitzgerald sisters because we were so similar and dark, and that movie got me through a lot of things, being teased a lot, mocked, and I got a lot of strength from those girls. And now you’re playing this next decade of a same kind of power female – now I’m going to have to write a forty-year-old! (laughs)
Jen: We actually have a forty-year-old housewife role…
Sylvia: It’s fun to see that, because you were not only a big part of my growing up as a teenager but a lot of girls growing up as teenagers, and to get you to do this next step is really interesting.
You deal with body modification in a complex and sensitive way. What led you to set the film in that world?
Sylvia: We wanted to have people from the real-life community: they don’t take off their horns, they don’t put their tongue back, they don’t change, it’s their life choice. And more often than not people are going to judge them because of this choice of how they feel more comfortable in their own skin. This is probably the first movie that just focuses on the body mod culture and I wanted to have a good first introduction. I wanted to have respect for the people who looked over the script, the people who came from the society to actually play themselves and be authentic, and it was my goal to do these people a proper representation. And some people will always be ignorant but I hope it educates and shows that these are just people, just like if I got a Mohawk it’d still be me, it just doesn’t change anything.
Jen: You’d look cute with a Mohawk.
Sylvia: I’m going for it.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
Watch the trailer: