Watching the season premiere of American Horror Story Coven and the Soska Sisters’ American Mary back-to-back, I couldn’t help but notice certain … recurrences. Both works feature a scene in a which a main character is drugged and raped, and the sexual act is recorded on a cellphone. In both works, the victimized female enacts a horrific revenge. This is the classic “rape/revenge” scenario that we see in films like I Spit on Your Grave and Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45. Both American Horror Story Coven and American Mary belong to a now well-established subgenre, the female-centered horror film.
How do we define the female-centered horror film? It is not simply a horror film in which a girl or woman has a leading role. The 1925 Phantom of the Opera, for example, has a female protagonist, an opera singer played by Mary Philbin, but the film’s real sympathies lie with the villain, the disfigured Phantom (Lon Chaney). He embodies the anxieties of feeling like a freak or outsider, too repulsive to be loved – the sexual alienation of a male.
The first real female-centered horror film is probably Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936). In that film, it is the female “monster” who feels like a freak or outsider and with whom our sympathies lie. Dracula’s Daughter is also remembered for its startling (for the time) hints of lesbianism.
The next important female-centered horror film is Cat People (1942), produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur. Once again, there is a sympathetic “monster” with whom our sympathies lie. She, too, feels like a freak or outsider, and her anxieties are distinctly sexual in nature.
Fast-forward to the early ‘60s and the disturbed female protagonists of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), though not strictly a horror film, is also part of this cycle. The common denominator is a woman’s sexual alienation. In Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman (1960), a woman’s fear of aging is added to the mix.
Kier-La Janisse’s remarkable book, HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN (FAB Press, 2012) explores the phenomenon in depth, mixing autobiography with film history, lovingly analyzing over 200 examples of the female-centered horror film and disturbed woman subgenres from the classics mentioned above through the Italian gialli of the ‘70s, American films like Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973) and Carrie (1976), European oddities like Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) (in which Isabelle Adjani deserts husband Sam Neill for a tentacled thing in a closet) and Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (2003), to films as recently made as Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-winning Black Swan (2010). The recurring female disturbances Janisse charts are both psychological and physical (body issues), ranging from cutting (mutilation of self and others) to necrophilia, drug abuse, prostitution, juvenile delinquency, kleptomania, schizophrenia, infantilism, anorexia, amnesia, rape/revenge, and the Stockholm syndrome.
Significantly, almost all of these films were directed by men.
American Mary stands apart because, among other reasons, it is a female-centered horror film directed by a woman – or rather – two women, Sylvia and Jen Soska, residents of Vancouver, who happen to be twins. As Tim Lucas wrote in a perceptive Video Watchdog analysis, it could “plausibly be described as the first erotic horror fantasy written and directed by an erotic horror fantasy.” Thematically, American Mary draws from the fetishism and “body horror” of David Cronenberg films like Dead Ringers and Crash. Though shot on a comparatively low budget, it has the style and gloss of Hollywood erotic thrillers like De Palma’s Dressed to Kill or Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. The subject is extreme body modification. The storyline resembles a female feature-length version of Breaking Bad, in which a mild-mannered academic (Katherine Isabelle as medical student, Mary Mason), faced with severe financial difficulties, turns to crime and discovers that he or she is good at it, eventually becoming a murderous criminal kingpin (or should I say “queenpin”). In American Mary, the crime takes the form of “outlaw” plastic surgery – performing operations that legitimate plastic surgeons would avoid, e.g., removing a model’s nipples and sealing her vagina so that she resembles a human Barbie doll. The Soska Sisters also act in the film, appearing as a pair of German-accented twins with filed teeth (above) who seek even further body modification.
American Mary is a promising work – fascinating in its own right – and like many promising works, it might turn out to be either the filmmakers’ finest accomplishment or a mere prelude to a genuinely outstanding career.