The Gospel of American Mary – A Horror in the Shell of a Psychological Thriller

Paul Risker continues our week of American Mary features by exploring its label as a ‘horror’ movie…

The much anticipated psychological thriller American Mary from the ‘Twisted Twins’ Jen and Sylvia Soska, opened the proceedings of the final day of FrightFest the 13th. You may wonder whether at 11am in the morning your breakfast would have had enough time to digest before taking a trip into the minds of the ‘Twisted Twins’ and the world of body modification?

A success on the festival circuit American Mary quickly became regarded as one of the most beloved horror films of 2012. Released in UK theatres at the beginning of January to coincide with the American Mary tour would mean that it is equally valid to think of it as one of horror’s high points spanning the years 2012-2013.

Perhaps genre in truth resembles the universe prior to its creation, the fusing together of two genres swirling around that sub-conscious space where inspiration and ideas are discovered on the sub-conscious level, resembling the particles that fused together amidst the dust cloud to form the universe. In this context we are talking about the cinematic universe, the particles pieces of genre, and the creative mind as a creator of worlds, fusing together these particles to form individual films within the cinematic art form.

Genre was perhaps best defined in the golden age of Hollywood, the era of the studio system when Universal was the home of horror, MGM musicals and Warner gangster pictures. Since this golden age and the collapse of the studios, genre pictures continue to go on general release, to be enjoyed by audiences and critics alike. In another sense, perhaps genre can be likened to the family tree, and within the horror genre, the horror film is blood relative to another genre, evidenced through American Mary.

Whilst American Mary’s singular identity as a horror does not span every critical and non-critical reaction to the film, it nevertheless felt fitting to write a piece on the perception of American Mary as a horror, and tackle its relationship with genre.

Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom was a psychological thriller that featured distinctly horrific elements. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, described as a classic British horror film, was in fact an amalgamation of genres. Each of these classic British films featured elements of the detective and crime story at their heart, though Wicker Man more so than Peeping Tom.

In particular, The Wicker Man is considered a classic horror movie, and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, an adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, whose horror derives from the psychological thriller element, exploits the themes of possession and the corruption of identity at the hands of malevolent spirits. American Mary may be best understood when contextualised in relation to these films, albeit British films.

The question of what genre American Mary belongs to mirrors the film’s line of enquiry as to just who is Mary Mason, the innocent fairy-tale like character despatched on a journey on which she undergoes a transformation, a change of personality. The story the Soska sisters tell in American Mary is in one sense about the loss of innocence and challenging the belief that people don’t change. As we share in her denouement, Mary becomes an agent of Jung’s psychology, of the first and second personality, suggesting that to be human is to find oneself in a constant internal/psychological tug of war. Mary Mason evolves into a character who exhibits with clarity the two personalities of the angel and the demon, the naïve and innocent surgeon infused with a cruel streak that darkens the former whilst not entirely vanquishing it.

American Mary exemplifies how one generic trait can be seized upon to categorise a film, in this case horror. Unlike Peeping Tom and The Wicker Man, American Mary minimises the focus of the detection element within its narrative, yet incorporates the two genres that are so often intertwined: the thriller (psychological) and horror.

Mary is one of cinema’s victims, a woman who chooses fight over flight, and if she is monstrous in moments, it stems from how she is perceived and treated by those around her. If she is evil, then she is a form of evil that is created and not born. Mary is a meditation of the way in which we are shaped by our surroundings and our impulsive and rational emotions, Isabelle’s natural and instinctive interpretation walks the line between her two selves.

To acknowledge Peeping Tom as a psychological thriller serves to do it a disservice, undermining it’s placement as a ‘slasher.’ To define The Wicker Man as a horror undermines its true identity as an amalgamation of genres. American Mary is done an equal disservice by defining it as a horror. Jen, Sylvia and Katherine described it as a psychological thriller with moments of horror, but it transcends horror to take a course through drama and turn itself into a hybrid of generic influences.

Just as Halloween was labelled or perceived as a violent horror movie, despite director John Carpenter’s insistence that this was not the case, it was an exercise in nerve biting suspense, the violence used to punctuate the former. In two ways American Mary is linked to Halloween. The film is not a pure horror, and it’s serves the thriller and psychological narrative construct, a product of her environment and her flirtation with financial reward for her surgical services, which in fact serves the most primitive of human instincts: the instinct to survive. This primitive instinct however leads to a violent fallout, intertwined with a psychological and physical transformation.

Through its guise as a psychological thriller, it sheds light on narrative and genre, exploring the cause and effect of the blood relatives of the horror and thriller. American Mary is both a psychological thriller and horror, testifying to the fact these genres are intertwined. Further, it re-imagines a classic tale of literature and film, a feminist retelling of Frankenstein, merging horror through Isabelle’s beautiful and feminine monster, a hybrid of creator and created. It is an horrific tale on one level, but with a black sense of humour and the psychological and physical transformation it is if anything like Peeping Tom a horror in the shell of a psychological thriller. This is not to claim that the film is an introspective exploration of the mind to the degree of Powell’s approach to his protagonist, but the psychological aspects of American Mary provide it with a psychological edge.

Speaking with Katherine Isabelle, she responded to my decision to contextualise the film as a horror: “I don’t think American Mary is a horror… I don’t know how to categorise American Mary. I definitely don’t think it’s a horror. I think it’s a psychological thriller, character study, tragedy, kind of funny and there are some bizarre and horrific elements in it; but I wouldn’t call it a horror movie at all.”

Sylvia told me when I asked about how best to define the film: “The funny thing is, that we thought Dead Hooker in a Trunk was a buddy, road trip movie, and this, I thought it was a romantic comedy. Everyone just looked at me and like, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” So, I think it’s always going to be horrific because that’s kinda where it goes, even though we don’t think that we are making one. To me, it was a modern tragedy…”

Jen remarked: “Everything we will do will have elements of horror in it. It’s hard to categorise American Mary strictly as a horror because it’s a film that really escapes definition. There’s so much that you can take from it. Some people will see it as a horror; some people will see it as drama…”

Interviewing both star and directors, the film appeared to depend entirely on the subjective perspective of the individual viewer; escaping definition, but ironically we exhibit a tendency to do just that..

American Mary should not be described in a few words. Sentences like the ones spoken by those closest to the film do it the most justice, emphasising that no creative experience can be summed up. A response such as brilliant sounds bland, and perhaps is an attempt to mask the lack of knowledge or appreciation. Perhaps generic terms are no different. Unlike the musical experience which is undermined by explanation, the cinematic experience or literary experience does not find discourse detrimental. Words are empty. Sentences expose true meaning of the subject and the speaker.

Paul Risker is a freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth, Scream The Horror Magazine and The London Film Review.