Ah, October, a month when talking obsessively about slashers, vampires, haunted houses, killer aliens, werewolves, and dismemberment is generally socially condoned. I have been enormously enjoying my own spooky season, an extension of my personal exploration of horror over the past year. Though I’ve seen many new-to-me horror films recently (most of which I write a little about on my letterboxd), it has been especially heartening to check out a few titles written and/or directed by women, which aren’t exactly common. Two of my favorites so far are the lycanthropy-as-metaphor-for-puberty drama Ginger Snaps, written by Karen Walton, and the body-mod gorefest American Mary, written and directed by the Soska Sisters. As a nice bonus, both happen to star Katharine Isabelle.
Seen: On our projector set-up on blu-ray (borrowed from my friend Ben).
Morbid sisters Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) are inseparable, determined to make it through high school together or possibly die trying, staging elaborate photographs of each others’ deaths as a creative coping mechanism. When the slightly older Ginger gets her period for the first time and is bit by a mysterious wolf-like creature on the same night, Brigitte becomes convinced that she’s turning into a werewolf, even though some of the signs are weirdly similar to puberty. Ginger drifts apart from her sister, suddenly interested in sex and drugs and parties, but her sister can see her rapidly losing control of herself both mentally and physically. Brigitte teams up with a local weed dealer who saw the original wolf and is inclined to believe in what’s happening, but they may not find a cure before Ginger fully wolfs out at the next full moon.
When I first heard the premise of Ginger Snaps I thought it would push the link between the “curse” of menstruation and the “curse” of werewolfism more. Like, get it? Women are MONSTERS when they’re surfing the crimson wave, can we talk about it? Women being emotional, uncontrollable monsters? Eh? But it turns out Ginger Snaps is really mostly about sisterhood and girlhood and growing up and hormones and turning into a werewolf obviously. It is primarily a well-paced supernatural drama, hinging on the mousy Brigitte as she works to save Ginger, a sister she is equally scared of and scared for. Emily Perkins is great in the role, affecting a telltale teenage shoulder hunch and an expression equal parts nervous and tenacious. Katharine Isabelle perfectly balances budding sexuality and over-confidence with an underlying vulnerability and eventual realization that she has lost control of everything she knew.
This movie combines all the confusion and excitement and terror of teenagedom–including fights with parents, personality changes, raging hormones and puberty, the perils of high school socialization, romantic melodrama–while simultaneously remaining a straight-up werewolf movie. I loved the theme of sisterhood and coming-of-age worked so believably into this darkly comic horror. Director John Fawcett’s insistence on practical effects works to everyone’s favor, and the story is original, unpredictable, and honestly quite touching. This is exactly the kind of feminist, femalecentric horror movie I wanted.
Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed through netflix.
My next foray into women-made horror was American Mary, written and directed by celebrated filmmaker twins Jen and Sylvia Soska. Katharine Isabelle stars again, this time as Mary, a medical student with financial troubles. Unable to make her loan or bill payments, she answers a craigslist ad looking for beautiful women to work at a strip club/bar. After the owner ropes her into an impromptu emergency surgery, she is unexpectedly hired by one of the club’s dancers, Beatress, to perform a body modification surgery on a woman who has been changing her appearance to resemble a Barbie-type doll. Mary is at first unsettled by the procedure, but soon finds herself a go-to surgeon for others in the body-modification community. When a party with her medical professors goes horribly wrong, she uses her newfound skills to enact revenge.
Without knowing too much about it, I imagined this film as a gory, seedy medical thriller with lots of gross operations and maybe body horror. In reality, it’s more a thoughtful take on the rape-revenge subgenre set within a unique subculture. While Mary’s rape is shown in awful, disgusting detail (the one scene I had to look away from during the whole movie), the rest of the story is more about the psychological aftermath than the “revenge” portion usually the focus of other movies with this theme. The body-mod stuff isn’t part of the horror, in face the film mostly offers a sympathetic and compassionate look at that community. The essential horror of the film lies in the lengths Mary finds herself going to as she tries to cope with this terrible experience, as she recognizes her own personality and moral code changing radically. Katharine Isabelle again puts in a memorable performance, at times betraying an uncertainty beneath a hardened, businesslike exterior. Her transformation from confident medical student to somewhat sadistic underground surgeon is a compelling one, and she completely sells it.
The main issue many viewers seem to have had with American Mary is the ending, and I definitely would consider that the film’s weak point. The climax is a bloody, murdery mess that suddenly introduces a new character who was barely mentioned halfway through, and it’s just not satisfying. I think the Soskas were trying to work in a commentary about male possessiveness of their female partners and the general idea that men often think they have control over women’s bodies, which is a very fair point and totally appropriate to raise in a film about body modification surgery. But the way it is introduced and haphazardly worked into the narrative does not fit, and instead a barely-there subplot jarringly becomes the deciding factor in Mary’s story in the last five minutes of the movie. Which is too bad, because up until that point I was very involved with her tale, and hoped for a more fitting conclusion.