Maybe the reason that the late 90s, early 00s nu metal Hot Topic mall goth aesthetic hasn’t yet returned in any significant, nostalgic way is that it never died a proper death. Not that I’d recommend the experience, but if you tuned in to a modern rock radio station, you’ll notice that not much has changed in the last fifteen years. A couple outliers like Tame Impala & The Black Keys aside, a lot of mainstream hard rock sounds like the kind of dreck I would’ve greedily eaten up in my KoЯn/Slipknot/Limp Bizkit-loving days as a wee lad. That’s partly why the half-hearted, cheap-o slasher American Mary feels so awkwardly uncool. If it were released closer to 1999, it’d be a lot more likely to deserve a former mall goth cult following like the actually-pretty-great werewolf movie Ginger Snaps. Since it was released just three years ago, however, the film feels like stale leftovers from a nu metal yesteryear. It’s not just in the shitty soundtrack either. The whole film feels like it could’ve been jointly sponsored by Hot Topic, Spencer’s, The Family Values Tour, and Ozzfest. Obviously, there’s still a market for that aesthetic, but I personally found it difficult to stomach.
The titular Mary in this nostalgia trip to a time no one misses is a young medical student who falls down the bizarre rabbit hole of performing voluntary body modification procedures thanks to a strip club named Bourbon-a-Go-Go. Unable to support herself financially while attending medical school, Mary auditions to be a stripper at Bourbon-a-Go-Go & somehow the interview devolves into her performing life-saving surgery in her fancy lingerie, a ridiculous display I suppose was meant to be titillation for surgery fetishists. It certainly didn’t deliver anything valuable in terms of gore. Shortly after this strange turn in her life, Mary is drugged & raped at a mentor surgeon’s house party (a moment that feels grotesquely out of place in what is for the most part a horror comedy) and the film then briefly combines my two all-time least favorite movie genres: the rape revenge & the torture porn. Fun. All of this nonsense eventually leads to Mary finding a second life as an unlicensed body modification surgeon who specializes in tongue splitting, teeth filing, implants, gential modification, voluntary amputation, and the like. She spends the rest of the film trying to balance this newfound vocation with the day-to-day complications of a besides-the-point budding romance & police investigation. Gore-light, gothy hijinks ensue.
To her credit, the actress who plays Mary (Katharine Isabelle, who also played Ginger in the aforementioned Ginger Snaps, appropriately enough) is mostly charming here, with her mod goth bangs & ironic, Daria Morgendorffer-style sense of emotionally-detached humor. Other female characters, including a woman who’s had more than a dozen elective procedures in order to look like her favorite cartoon character & a fetish model who wants to become as flat as a Barbie doll to sidestep sexual objectification, are equally fascinating. What doesn’t work is the grotesquely macho world that surrounds them. The film’s tendency towards a meat head nu metal aesthetic opens it up to leering lipstick lesbianism, thoroughly unsexy fellatio, sexual assault, and trashy-at-best strip teases that ruin the good vibes that a few interesting characters here or there can’t sustain on their own. American Mary desperately wants to be an ironically detached horror comedy & sometimes it works. The fact that our lovely mod goth protagonist earns the moniker “Bloody Mary” is amusing, as are other tossed-off details like an early scene where a mentor praises her surgical skills with the line, “You’re going to make a great slasher.” Most of the film is far from self-aware in this way, though, and instead drags on endlessly through macho goth nonsense sure to please every thirteen year old out there who’s still rocking studded bracelets & wallet chains, but not many others.
For the morbidly curious looking to dive into this dated aesthetic, I recommend instead checking out the somewhat-similar-in-tone Starry Eyes, in which a young actress falls into the rabbit hole of Hollywood casting couch politics. Starry Eyes is far from a horror comedy, but its earnestness earns much more interesting, bizarrely grotesque results than American Mary‘s overbearing sense of detachment. Starry Eyes has a lot of American Mary‘s nu metal posturings, but puts them to much better use, going for full-on horror instead of this half-ironic, half-brutal, fully-tepid stinker with a late 90s hangover.