Tuesday, May 28, 2013

On the Subject of Ruthless Women - American Mary & Black Rock

One of my favorite things about the horror genre is that it gives women a chance to explore our darker
sides. The less than flattering clichés of the Virgin and the Whore still thrive in your standard slasher movie – but those same tropes are played with and torn apart by other, smarter horror films, like Scream or The Cabin in the Woods (where the “dumb blonde” in that case is actually an intelligent brunette wearing doctored, stupefying hair dye).

In any case, the overwhelming majority of horror film stars are women. The “Final Girl” – the last person left standing, having annihilated the killer through strength or, more often, smarts – is almost always female (hence the name). Less often, though not necessarily by much, the killers themselves are also women. Horror has its problems, but a lack of interesting roles for women is not one of them.

I had the pleasure of seeing two female-driven independent horror films last week: American Mary and Black Rock. Both were written and directed by women, and both yielded plenty to chew on regarding the “true nature” of the supposedly sweeter sex.

American Mary is the more interesting and original film of the two. Mary Mason, played by the excellent Katherine Isabelle (of Ginger Snaps fame – this woman knows how to pick her parts), is a talented medical student with a promising future as a surgeon. But after carrying out a desperate gambit for money, coupled with an egregious violation on the part of her professors, Mary finds herself dropping out of med school and into the world of underground surgeries and body modification. She soon becomes known as “Bloody Mary” – an affectionate moniker provided by her many satisfied customers.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition: the internal transformation of Mary, from a bright but meek student to a darkly empowered but corrupt surgeon, and the external transformations of her customers, from “ugly” or ordinary to what they consider beautiful. Even more interesting when you consider specific surgeries, such as one customer who wants to be completely desexualized, “like a Barbie doll,” or another who wants to look exactly like Betty Boop. These women are not aiming for any mainstream ideal of beauty (it’s highly doubtful that a typical man would find these women attractive or desirable); instead, they’re creating their own strange but unique ideals. Mary, who was stripped of control by men in her past, is empowering these women in her own way. In turn, she’s also empowering herself to find success out of the realm of the traditionally male-dominated field of medicine.

Of course, it’s not all nose jobs and rainbows in American Mary. Mary is a severely damaged, even disturbed woman, and some of her actions are clearly immoral (even while they are understandable). The deeper she delves into the underground, the more it affects her, and Isabelle plays Mary’s deadpan-but-damaged demeanor perfectly. You can tell things can’t possibly end well for Mary, but such is life for the tragically flawed antihero. But the point is, it’s refreshing to see a female antihero that we can love, flaws and all. After all, so many male characters are given free license to be both reprehensible and beloved (from Holden Caulfield to Dexter Morgan), while women are rarely given that kind of free reign.

Female antiheroes abound in Black Rock, as well, though the plot and its characters aren't quite as complex. The short version: three friends (Sarah, Abby, and Lou) with a fraught past meet to go camping for the weekend at an old childhood haunt (a small, completely deserted island, of course). While camping – and alternately bickering and reminiscing – they run into three male acquaintances from elementary school. After making the ill-advised decision to invite the men to camp, there is an unpleasant revelation: the men are dishonorable discharges from the army, and they seem less than stable. One thing leads to another leads to attempted rape and accidental murder (Abby hits one of the men in the head with a rock), and suddenly the two remaining men are hunting the women like animals.

The female characters are less than likeable, with character flaws ranging from cheater to whiner to cancer-joke-maker (well, that last one is actually kind of funny, in context). Even the events that lead to the attempted rape force the viewer to question the women’s judgment (although that does not, of course, excuse the men’s actions). Luckily, these weaknesses and imperfections only make the characters, and the movie, all the more interesting and fleshed-out. These women aren’t Victims and Whores; their motivations are more compelling than those token characters’. Although, since the movie runs at a tight one hour and 19 minutes, all of this background is packed into a short period of time. The majority of the movie focuses on the chase.

Again, luckily, that chase is every bit the tense, suspenseful ride you would hope for in a survival thriller like this one. The previously squabbling women quickly undergo a transformation, becoming primal, ferocious predators themselves. The formerly whinging Abby becomes a scrappy, aggressive adversary who isn’t afraid to take a punch if it means getting to say what she really thinks of the men. The female performances are as physical and brutal as one could ask of them. It's not exactly breaking new ground (I Spit on Your Grave, for example, explored similar territory years ago), but it undoubtedly has more slickness and substance than a simple retread of other survival horrors. As in American Mary, the hunted become the hunters, and as disturbing as it is, it’s also at turns fascinating, bracing, and exhilarating.

Because that’s what horror does best, when at its best: it turns the cliché on its head. It finds panic and disgust in the commonplace. It makes civilized people cruel and callous, and explores the darkest fears and desires of humanity. All the better if it allows women to lead those expeditions.

Also published at the Times News.