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American Mary: Day Of The Woman

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How a pair of twisted sisters from Canada are helping horror cinema get in touch with its feminine side.

There is often the misconception that horror cinema caters for only the male perspective. Of course, common tropes of female victims and aggressive sexuality (on which whole books have been written) make it easy to see where this notion comes from.

The release of the 'Twisted Twins' Jen and Sylvia Soska's American Mary this January brings a refreshing female voice to a genre that has taken its fair share of accusations of misogyny. Taking the discussion of the role of gender in this psychosexually-charged genre in a bold new direction, the film is good reason for horror fans to look forward to the future.

The idea that horror is a male dominated genre is of course open to intense debate, with the slasher staple of the 'final girl' showing that audiences are always keen to get behind a (typically) pure and innocent, yet plucky heroine in the face of a demented chopper-wielding (Freudian slip fully intended) maniac.

These films offer protagonists to really get behind, with resourceful and determined leads seeking to outwit or outrun their attackers. And it is the horror genre that has offered up some of the most engaging female leads in cinema history – Halloween and sci-fi crossover Alien remain the finest examples.

Even those films that appear on the surface to use exploitation or sexual violence as a starting point, such as I Spit On Your Grave, are very much concerned with identification – we empathise with the victim’s pain, and are presented with the horrific acts of these films as just that, horrific.

This is something that has been wavering in modern horror, with the rise of torture porn and similar shock tactics leading some filmmakers to bypass both the well-established possibilities of identification and thematic ability that gender gives and resort to pure objectification as a lazy crutch. An example of this is Hidden In The Woods, the forthcoming Chilean film that played at last year's FrightFest. This is a slightly concerning trend that was in dire need of an articulate counter-point.

Receiving a UK premiere at the same festival last summer, one that can always be relied upon as an effective barometer of the state of horror, American Mary received great critical acclaim, coming as it did in what was a fairly weak year for the genre. What the film offered was a young woman in the lead, strongly played by Ginger Snaps' Katherine Isabelle, who begins very much at the mercy of aggressive male authority figures, be it a seedy strip club owner interested in her 'credentials' or the lecherous instructors she faces in her training as a surgeon – particularly in a vitally creepy scene towards the end of the first act.

Where American Mary succeeds hugely is in letting the heroine reclaim her sexuality – transcending the slightly tired stereotype of the Strong Female Character to become a young woman genuinely in control (at least for the time being) of herself and of the emasculated male figures around her. This applies both literally and figuratively, as Mary’s increasing control of her little corner of the body mod world causes unease in many characters, breaking through the bravado of the previously mentioned club owner on more than one occasion.

There is a theme throughout the film of the perception of women, summed up neatly by one of Mary’s first patients, a woman who seeks doll-like purity through the removal of all her sexualised body parts. Although on a more literal level this works as a shocking introduction to the body modification world that the character finds herself involved with, it offers an intriguing glimpse into the concept of objectification, and can indeed be read as an outright rejection of it.

Of course, it would be short-sighted to champion this film purely because of the gender of its creators, but the Soskas' raw filmmaking ability along with the infectious energy they bring to a crowded arena makes their film one the horror community should rally around.

The time is ripe for female voices to be heard again in horror, and the early part of 2013 seems set to be something of a shot in the arm for an intelligent exploration of the concept of gender in horror cinema, something that the genre has always had a unique ability to do, but that over the last few years has been in danger of being lost.

This is not to say that the horror scene is a sexist world at all, but rather one where the themes of gender and sexuality are often foregrounded, enabling articulate exploration of ideas that are both deep and relevant – naturally, different viewers will have different readings.

Another handy example is V/H/S, which hits UK cinemas 18 January, a series of short vignettes that some festival viewers felt had a through line of threatening or dangerous women. It could be strongly argued that this film also sought to react to the nastier elements of modern horror, with one shot in the first episode coming to mind as another outright rejection.

Reams have been written focusing on in-depth analysis of this aspect of horror, with the potent threat of Bram Stoker’s Dracula bringing violence and sexuality to the genre before cinema was even invented, and American Mary has similar potential to provoke discussion for years to come. The genre these days can at times seem too fascinated with the shock elements of its heritage, and the Soskas may have just brought back that ability to challenge that led so many of us to fall in love with horror in the first place.

Horror is in good shape to keep producing these kind of intelligent, articulate films, and with filmmakers as infectious as the Soskas on board, it truly is an exciting time to be a horror fan.

Now check out our review of Amerian Mary.

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