As weapons go, knives are the most sexually charged. There’s a reason Don Jose stabs Carmen outside of the bullfight rather than shoots or strangles her: the murder is a manifestation of his sexual jealousy. It’s essentially rape—penetration without permission. And it’s why your archetypal horror-movie villains wield blades: why Jason carries a machete and Freddy Krueger has knives for fingers. (Chainsaws even are basically just giant mechanical knives.) If the standard interpretation of classical slasher movies is that they’re reactionary, killing off promiscuous teenagers while leaving the chastest among them to survive, you could take it a step further and say the characters who’re killed for their sexuality are murdered by the most violent and reprehensible manifestation of that sexuality: healthy sexuality murdered by its darker flipside, embodied by the knife. The sexless Last Girl Standing is impenetrable to both blade and phallus.
American Mary, a new horror movie directed and written by twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska that opens on Friday, takes on such hoary conservatism. If the horror movie is typically about punishing women, this one is the opposite: it’s about restoring robbed power. It centers on the titular surgeon-in-training (Katherine Isabelle) who falls into an extreme black-market body-modification subculture. The problem of cinematic objectification is addressed with characters who are literally objectified and thus desexualized: Mary’s first procedure in a non-traditional OR involves cutting off a woman’s breasts and sewing (mostly) closed her vagina, completing the patient’s transformation into a doll not in the Runyon sense but the Mattel one. The filmmakers posit that it’s not fair that God gets to decide what kind of body we have, and thus bestow that divine power upon the women themselves. They’re in total control of their bodies.
What’s the opposite of such control? Getting raped, which also happens to Mary; you could interpret her decision to drop out of med school and perform underground body modifications as a way to give back to other women the power of control that was stolen from her. But she also avenges herself. Her hospital’s surgical staff—known slangily as “slashers”—is a creepy boy’s club of rape-party druggists, and Mary gets her vengeance surgically, using her medical know-how to inflict extreme pain (just like the father who lost his son did to the boy’s kidnapper in The Tortured). It’s I Spit on Your Grave-style violence, but much more intense; when the film finally revisits Mary’s captive rapist/plaything, which she keeps alive for surgical practice, it’s horrifying. But it’s in this violence that the Soskas ultimately give women their triumph—not only with control over their bodies, but also with control of the knives.
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