Saturday, June 8, 2013

American Mary

AMERICAN MARY               D+   
Canada  (100 mi)  2012  d:  Jen and Sylvia Soska         Official site

Doesn’t everybody just love a good horror movie?  Well, that’s not exactly what this is, as instead it’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek stab at torture porn, a subgenre of one of the most hideously gruesome forms of sadistic horror, and one that seems to have little if any redeeming value.  Apparently some find this sort of thing entertaining, however, as evidenced by Eli Roth’s two HOSTEL (2005, 2007) movies, the first grossing ten times the initial budget, and the highly profitable SAW (2004) franchise, where the original was made for $1.2 million but grossed over $100 million dollars worldwide, churning out nearly one movie a year ever since, where the latest, SAW VII (2010), is a 3D effort.  While torture porn appeals to the basest form of crude and grotesque behavior, featuring explicit scenes of sadistic torture, dismemberment, and mutilation, where the gory action sequences are presented as freak-show sensationalism, the effects of watching this stuff is largely unknown, though one would think the mentally unstable should stay away.  Some films, like Rob Zombie’s THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), initially thrown into the mix, probably don’t belong, as they pay homage to earlier 70’s era drive-in, grindhouse B-movies, representative of the golden age of exploitation, schlock films filled with buckets of blood and gore, where the melodramatic hysteria is met with equally over-the-top visualizations, all made for next to nothing, usually for satiric effect.  The Kuchar Brothers, for instance, were masters of the low budget aesthetic, working alongside 60’s underground legends Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger, which eventually spawned John Waters and his outsiderist cult films of the 70’s, a director who expressed an equal amount of joy and influence from highbrow “art” films and sleazy exploitation films.  But the father of modern horror pictures is Dario Argento, who interestingly began his career as a screenwriter teamed up with Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone for the spaghetti western ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) before venturing out on his own, where his claim to fame is giallo films combining high quality, art film production values with nudity, gore, and shocking horror, not the least of which might feature throat slashings or decapitations along with unusually stylish camerawork.  It’s the unflinching content of high production slasher or splatter films that establishes a connection to torture porn, where only snuff films remain an untapped exploitive resource. 

Unbelievably, even a snuff film was presented for the first time at the Cannes Film festival this year, according to Scott Roxborough and Patrick Brzeski from The Hollywood Reporter (Cannes: Ultra-Violence Peppers Competition Selection - The ...). 

Pushing the envelope furthest is Atrocity Exhibition, showing in the Short Film corner, which its director Ebadur Rahman has described as “Cannes’ first snuff film.” Says Rahman: “Cannes has been showing fake ‘extreme content’ for ages: Any film by Tarantino, Takeshi Miike, or Kim Ki Duk is at least as violent as mine. What’s different about Atrocity Exhibition is, I didn’t fake it.” Asked whether viewers might have to look away during screenings, Rahman says: “I would hope so.”

Not only has the SAW franchise legitimized torture porn, providing a large audience and a new avenue into horror films, always a lucrative movie business,  but South Korean filmmakers Park Chan-wook’s OLD BOY (2003) winning the Jury Prize at Cannes (a Tarantino favorite) and Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta (2012) winning the Best Film at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, all but give the genre the artistic seal of approval.  Not so fast, some may scream, as some parted company with Park Chan-wook’s next offering, SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE (2005), where Cinema Scope and freelance writer Michael Sicinski writes an open letter of protest to New York Times critic Manohla Dargis in condemnation of the film (see reviews dated 9/15, 2005 Toronto International Film Festival), calling it “a repugnant piece of shit.”  This kind of outrage is a natural extension of the product, as it’s meant to be revolting, just as Mary Harron’s over-the-top use of surreal horror in American Psycho (2000), something this slightly resembles, is meant to be outrageous, which brings us to Canada’s the Soska sisters, Sylvia and Jen, interviewed here by The Guardian’s Steve Rose (Guardian: Soska Sisters):    

Horror was a natural direction for the Soskas. As kids, they'd lurk in the horror section of the video store looking at the backs of the boxes, they say. "Mom eventually caved in and let us watch Poltergeist when we were 10," says Sylvia. "We were like, 'We can handle it mom.' Then bedtime came and we were scared… fucking… shitless. And my mother did something that would forever change the way we look at horror movies. She sat Jen and me down and explained what we had actually seen. She explained the director, the actors, the prosthetics, the sets, everything. And she told us how these were very talented artists who collaborated with the intention of scaring the audience. We were like, 'Wait a minute. It can be your job to scare people for a living?'"

The eventual film-making course didn't go well, though. They became so disillusioned that their graduation project was a fake trailer, partly inspired by Tarantino and Rodriguez's Grindhouse and partly by the film school's list of things not to put in a graduation movie. "Necrophilia, bestiality, vomiting… we put in everything we could," says Jen. "Half the audience walked out, and the other half was laughing so hard you couldn't hear the intentionally disgusting language."

Horror tends to be an exclusively all-male domain, where women are used as fetishistic objects to scare out of their wits, from Fay Wray in KING KONG (1933) to Jamie Lee Curtis in HALLOWEEN (1978), where scantily clad girls are seen staying in a secluded cabin in the woods from I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) to THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2011), but there are notable exceptions, such as Takashi Miike’s AUDITION (1999) where the roles are reversed.  AMERICAN MARY will not be for everyone, as it’s graphically disturbing throughout, but it is a horror film with a uniquely female perspective.  Much like Tarantino, the Soska sisters not only have an admiration for the horror genre, but a certain reverence for its form, where the film is basically a series of horror set pieces filled with twisted and strangely unlikable characters.  Seen almost entirely through the impressionable eyes of Katharine Isabelle as Mary (talk about a working actress, IMDb lists 10 movies made after this one with another four either filming or in post production), an attractive young medical student who is having trouble making ends meet, painting a much rosier picture to her Hungarian grandmother on the phone, but despite getting harassed by an over-controlling professor, even though she’s the best and most promising student in class, she needs to make money fast.  So she answers an ad for what she thinks is a dancer at a strip club, but due to her meticulously detailed resumé that indicates she’s in medical school, the sleazy owner Billy (Antonio Cupo) pays $5000 cash up front and sucks her into an under-the-table, highly specialized offer of stitching up mutilated bodies that have been pulverized and left for dead from vicious beatings.  Afterwards, she immediately starts receiving calls from the Diane Arbus world of the bizarre requesting “extreme body modification.” While Mary is a professed innocent to this looming underworld of desired body disfigurement and mutilation, where despite the unpleasantness associated with the often gruesome task, the lucrative offers are extremely generous, making it difficult to turn down. 

The film’s saving grace is the exaggerated tone throughout, something of a satirical spoof, where Mary has an absurdly comic dialogue with many of her patients, some of whom feel more like a childlike collection of dolls or specimens than human beings, where it’s as if her subconscious has a voice through her exotic bodywork, giving her a titillating sense of empowerment.  Dressed in skimpy outfits, stalkings and stilleto’s, she’s always dressed for the male idealization, as if Xena the Warrior Princess has suddenly been transformed into someone’s idea of a male sexual fantasy, where working out of her own apartment, she becomes an underground cult sensation, dropping out of medical school and maintaining a thriving practice, where she quickly picks up the affectionate online nickname “Bloody Mary.”  The Soska sisters themselves appear onscreen as a pair of batshit crazy sisters that surgically wish to exchange arms with one another, so there are obviously other issues at play here, all of them disturbing, including an underlying thread throughout of nonchalant sadism, becoming an anatomically precise horror show of disfigurement.  Delving into SAW territory, Mary even holds her professor captive (as it was after all he who crossed the line), as she experiments with particularly difficult procedures on him just for practice, leaving him something of a whimpering human stump.  Where the film does tread new ground, expressed with demented relish, is portraying a highly distinctive, feminist sense of controlling one’s own body image while also adding, just for good measure, a righteous sense of feminist anger and revenge, going where no one has gone before, so to speak, as it has the desired effect the sisters are looking for, where much of what we see is pretty disgusting.  The heavily artistic production design might actually be called outlaw biker fantasy porn, as biker guys get off on drinking heavily, naked girls, and beating the crap out of people, and here they get to watch their fantasy sweetheart stitch their mangled victims back together again, where every last detail is explicitly prohibited outlaw behavior.  While the underlying comic element may be subversive, there were no laughs heard in the theater, as the experience is meant to be nauseating and revolting.  This may be highly appealing for deviants of all kinds, or people who enjoy watching sadistic behavior for their theatrical entertainment, but there remains an open question whether this graphically grotesque material adds anything significant to the world of cinema.  


  1. What Ebadur Rahman showed at Cannes was in no way a "snuff film," which is defined as a film in which the onscreen killings are committed for the sake of the film being made. Here is a description from the German newspaper Die Welt:

    "The short film window "Short Film Corner" again shows a strip of living in Paris, curator and film theorist Ebadur Rahman from Bangladesh. "Atrocity Exhibition" describes itself as the "first real snuff film." Snuffs are the last taboo for decades in movies, they pretend to show real killings of people. How "real" that was in previous snuffs, has always been controversial. But Rahman's images seem to be not staged and showing the lynching of alleged Islamists at home while police are watching."

    So this is just documentary footage of actual killings, which is easy to find all over the Internet and has always been part of those "Faces of Death" compilations. Nothing new. Methinks Mr. Rahman was indulging in a bit of hype to get attention.

  2. Not surprising, since real snuff films are illegal, and the cops would come down upon any public screening with the wrath of Inspector Clouseau. The point of bringing it up was that this is the only unchartered territory left for torture porn advocates to go, as the unsavory details they feature so graphically, and so casually, are highly illegal. So this kind of thing is actually the imaginings of various people who find sadistic humiliation so entertaining, along with grossly depicted mutilation, like the nail in the penis sequence of von Trier's Antichrist. I can't explain the public fascination with this kind of stuff, as if it's some kind of disturbing sexualization of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but certainly for some, despite the arty approach, this is borderline worthless, feeling completely empty afterwards, as if that was an experience I can only hope to forget.