Friday, 18 January 2013

American Mary...

So last night I saw American Mary at the Duke of York's in Brighton and since I'm forever asking people to blog about Jenny Ringo and the Monkey's Paw (which you can see for free at, and sign up to the mailing list for news on the sequel which is very close to being finished!) I decided it's time I wrote about someone else's film for a change.

I've never been great at plot summaries so here's the trailer...

For the first half of American Mary I was convinced I was watching the most original, relevant and genuinely shocking horror film I'd seen in a long time. The film looks amazing, Katharine Isabelle does a fantastic job portraying an incredibly complex character and there is a superb atmosphere of creepiness and dread underlining the whole first Act. What makes it work is that Mary is written and performed with just enough humanity to make her descent into madness believable and genuinely disturbing. 

The world of the film almost becomes a representation of the human body, with Mary scraping back the surface of the places and situations we recognise to reveal the blood and guts of a dark, mysterious underworld. Because we care about Mary we go on this journey with her, but the problem is that this empathy is difficult to maintain and as she becomes more and more unbalanced she pushes the audience further away. It's not just about the character not being likable, but it's more an issue over what is at stake (not much) and how she develops (after a certain point she doesn't really). As the film meandered towards an anti-climactic conclusion I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed that what I thought was an early contender for my favourite film of the year hadn't quite lived up to the potential of that amazing first half hour.

But one of the other great things about the film is that it gets under your skin and stays with you, meaning I was still thinking about it long after the credits had rolled. And at some point on the drive home it occurred to me that this isn't a film about body-modification at all. It's a film about exploitation filmmaking.

There may be spoilers ahead. Consider yourselves warned.

This is perhaps one of those situations where I'm applying too much of my own experience to a film but Mary's super-harsh lecturer reminded me of a couple of screenwriting lecturers I've been taught by in the past. So for the sake of my argument imagine that Mary is not a medical student but a film student, and her aim is to be a legitimate, respected filmmaker. Then you get the party scene which represents her chance at networking with big-time film producers. Except they're only interested in screwing her over (which could be the experience of the actual filmmakers bleeding through, or me seeing what I want to see based on my own limited experience). Suddenly she realises the industry she wants to work in is corrupt and the dream she has been working towards all those years is forever tainted.

So she tries something else. She finds a way to do the thing she wanted to do outside the system. She sells something that people want, but that will never be mainstream. She makes art that can be ugly and beautiful at the same time. She makes exploitation films.

I've mentioned a few times in the past that I love arthouse horror films; horror films with all the blood and gore and scares in place but that are ambitious and complex and ambiguous enough to make them stand out from the usual production-line genre trash. American Mary not only fits into that subgenre, I think the film itself is all about the conflict between art and genre cinema. 

And when I think about it like that I realise that it may well be an early contender for my favourite film of the year after all...



Or why Mark Kermode is right and I am wrong.

Just listened to an episode of the Kermode and Mayo podcast from a couple of weeks ago in which he reviewed American Mary, as seen here - 

Kermode essentially says that the whole film is about the objectification of the human body which is a point so obvious I can't believe I missed it. And it makes sense of all the parts I wasn't sure about. For example, the club owner in the film has recurring fantasies about Mary stripping for him, which to me seemed out of place in a feminist horror film. Surely this is celebrating the objectification of women rather than condemning it? And then I got confused so I ignored that part. But if the whole film is itself about the objectification of women then these scenes are totally relevant and necessary, because in order to understand Mary's approach to the human body we need to see how other people objectify her, even the people who know she is capable of so much more.

I think my exploitation filmmaker thesis still stands, but I think I was wrong to dismiss the parts of the film I didn't understand so quickly, and it's made me want to see the film again so I'll probably buy the DVD. Which you should do too.

And the reason I'm posting this is to show that no opinion on a film, or any kind of art, should be final.

That is all.


Gabriel said...

Nice review on the movie. I've been hearing about American Mary for a couple of weeks now, but hadn't decided to see it yet... until now. :) I like when a movie doesn't have a clear sense of what it's about. Makes things more interesting.

Chris Regan said...

Cool, would love to know what you think!