Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Horrordork III


I just finished watching American Mary, a film I was pumped about for a thousand reasons, some of which are included in the following list:
  • Horrordork. Ahem.
  • This film was directed and written by a pair of female directors.
  • You read that shit right.  TWO LADY DIRECTORS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE.
  • It stars Katherine Isabelle, which might be redundant considering the first point, and
  • Canada.  Yes.  Still.
I was not disappointed.  The flick is ace.  It manages to be original, which goes for miles in any genre but gets extra legs on the well-tread swamptrails of horror; it is definitely creepy and it does indeed horrify, and in new, delicious ways.  Its not a perfect flick, though, and the reasons why are directly related to my on-going fascination with the evolution of the way women are portrayed in horror.

I noticed something about the movies I have loved the most (and written about) recently: the main monster, the head honcho BigBad, is a) female and b) she gets away in the end.

These characteristics are directly relevant to how I feel about everything, really, with my particular brand of 'off' shading the expectations I have about horror and ladies and what-have-you.  I like it when women kill things, and I double like it when they get away with it.  Apparently.  I'm just going on numbers here.

Its not something I'd put on a resume.  Moving on.

The protagonist of American Mary is a young medical student, strapped for cash and largely alone in the world.  She has a degrading professor she's trying to impress and a dalliance with becoming a stripper that never gets realized, as her skills are requested elsewhere by the scummy strip-club owner.  And so our tale begins. 

The second major thing to happen to Mary is also the second major thing I noticed about all of the Movies I Have Loved the Most: Mary gets raped by that dirtbag professor.  

As does the Dead Girl, and the Woman.

Well, I mean, its not the professor, but you know.  Its a dirtbag, or a succession of dirtbags.

This brings me back to exploitation flicks (I'll wind back to Mary, just hang on).  I've never been a fan, really.  I know that's like, sacrilegious or whatever, and, being a Horrordork and all, I'm supposed to 'get' I Spit On Your Grave and its ilk.  I do.  Everyone does--hint: this shit is not subtle.  But the reason rape-revenge flicks got the reputation as 'exploitation' is because they linger on the rape half of the equation, not the revenge.  Or, if they do manage a half-n-half kind of gig, or even go deep with the revenge, it's boring.  It ends up as a moral message about how the women have become the same kind of monsters that violated them, or worse, and so they should've just... I dunno.  Turned the other cheek?  Not let getting raped change their identity (good fucking luck, asshats-who-wrote-those-movies)?  Anyway.  Me: not a fan.

So.  These films--The Woman and The Dead Girl, most prominently--take that last moralist whatever and mash it to bits the same way they mash their perpetrators to bits.  They are feral creatures, to be fair; this point matters when we get to Mary.  They don't have another cheek to turn, because they are solidly in the category of Walking Ids.  For many viewers, I think this idea could be considered sexist.  I don't.  I see it as equal opportunity monsterhood.  There are literally hundreds and hundreds of movies featuring feral male murder-monsters.  Of those, a fair portion get away in the end (many more do not, but then, most of them are not raped either; the equation isn't perfect).  I can think of only the two films featuring grade-A monster status ladies who are the bloody victors at the end of their war stories.

Female villains who get away in the end are not as uncommon as they once were, by far.  And there have definitely been some stand-outs--Basic InstinctInside, which may eventually have its very own blog entry here because my god--and even among the films where the villain doesn't quite get away--High Tension, The Loved Ones, Fatal Attraction--there are some righteous examinations of the relationship between women and power.  But the primary thing to notice about all of these films is that the villain is a slow reveal.  She isn't changed into the bad guy; she's always waiting, behind whatever facade she finds useful, to devour her prey.  The Woman and The Dead Girl are both the most obvious villains and the ones that are vulnerable, but their nature is never a mystery.  They spend large portions of the film in chains because you know--everybody knows--they're dangerous.  The other villains appear harmless, but inside, they're the same.

Mary is not.

This film is unique in that sense, definitely.  Mary, a well-meaning medical student, is changed by her circumstances.  She is altered by her rape, forever.  And there is no drawn out, ridiculous montage, no moment of doubt; one minute she's waking up, victimized, and the next she's handing a wad of cash to the guys who kidnap her rapist.  She pulls out her tool kit and tells him what she's been learning in the back room of the strip club, doing extreme body modification and reconstructive surgery for criminals.  And then she tells him what she's going to do to him.

Mary retains her morality, although it becomes a very thin membrane that barely stretches over her actions.  The film is not perfect, as I said, and although the viewer is told--and briefly shown in one sorta weird, misguided attack on a stripper--that Mary has become a feared and well-known monster to many of the questionable types associated with the strip club, I never got that sense by watching her actions.  Maybe I think doing body modification isn't a big deal, even when it is really, really extreme.  I don't know.  Maybe they were talking about the surgeries/tortures she performed for money; it wasn't clear, unfortunately.  I have a feeling some scenes were cut that cemented her spiral in a more public way.  Regardless, Mary chooses not to kill the police officer circling her crimes.  She doesn't go on random sprees.  She cuts people up for money.  The kicker?  Most of them pay her big bucks for it.

So anyway.  She is clearly disappointed with the turn her life has taken, and you get the sense she feels she has surrendered to the animal nature of her curiosity.  In the most frightening scene of the film by far, she goes ballistic murdering a security guard who is in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  But this is only to protect herself, and afterward she feels absolutely miserable.  But only about his death--which is important.

Mary becomes one of these new kinds of female villains; she has no question about the right and wrong of what she does to her attacker.  He gets what he paid for, and she never expresses regret about his fate.  But the way this decision spirals into the rest of her life--her medical career is destroyed as a result of her intimate knowledge of the scumbags running her school; she is fascinated and invested in the body modification schemes of her clients; she enjoys the power of her notoriety while disgusted by her subjects--gives her an existential dilemma that can't touch feral creatures like The Woman, or The Dead Girl.  And this separates her from them.

The ending is a little confusing, too; she doesn't go out in a blaze of glory.  But you're not sure, by then, that she even wants to.  She seems listless, unfulfilled.  Is it because she finally had to dispose of her favorite toy?  Because her body-mod clients are unimaginative?  Because of ugh, everything?  You can't really tell.

My guess about the ending?  [SpoilerspoilerspoilerSPOILER! You've been warned]  Her first client requested modifications that would turn her into a more androgynous creature, as if removing her nipples and narrowing her vaginal canal (questions of logic should just be ignored), etc would eradicate the effect of her giant fake boobs and narrow waist and make her husband stop thinking about her as a 'sex object.'  You feel, as a viewer, much the way Mary did:  "Um.  Okay?"  But don't dwell; as I said, I was salivating at this novel territory in horror.  Fast-forward to the end and this husband, in a wide-spread fit of anger, brutalizes his wife, her friend, and kills Mary.  She manages to kill him too, but dies on her floor, suturing her own wound.  Its very poetic, and... I don't know.  That's all I got.  Am I supposed to infer that brutal male-ness is responsible for her death?  That Mary dies as an outlier in the on-going war between women and men who sexualize and possess them?  No idea.  But you don't get pissed, watching this; it is still satisfying to see a horror film about a dynamic female character, a Protag/Antag, with new twists and turns (however odd).

So I did love it.  But I question, as always, whether a price need be paid for treating a rapist to his own dish.  There is a bit of that, in Mary, or there could be, if I could figure some of this other weird plot shit out.  In the meantime, I choose to believe its just a wacky, bloody story with a great lead.  GG Twisted Twins.*

*I haven't seen Dead Hooker in a Trunk because the title pisses me off so much it makes me want to punch something, but (the rest of) the plot synopsis sounds okay.  Plus: dude, two lady directors.  Hard to say no to that.