Starring: Lisa van Dam-Bates, Travis Johnny Ware, Katie Hemming, Jason Stange
Written: Lisa van Dam-Bates
Directed by: Lisa van Dam-Bates
Lisa van Dam-Bates is the super-human triple threat behind medical shocker Marla Mae (2018). Writing, directing, and starring in a movie would be beyond the powers of most ordinary mortals. I will barely get through writing this paragraph without needing to call my therapist. I was drawn to this movie by the fact that Dam-Bates seemed to have so much control over her movie. It may seem unfair to say that this movie is more interesting because it was written and directed by a woman. After all, no-one goes to see Martin Scorsese films because he is a guy, but to me, it is a numbers game.
My opinion is that there are too few female voices in horror, especially ones who have control over their vision, to ignore a movie like this. Judging by its subject matter, it is easy to think that the subtext of Marla Mae is something extremely personal to most women: getting adequate and affordable healthcare from a system that doesn’t appear to respect or pretend to understand women.
Marla Mae begins solidly with well-drawn characters and a good story. Marla is a young woman who works late nights at a bar where her boyfriend Jake (Travis Johnny Ware) is the bartender, and her friends are fellow employees. It is a simple life, but one that she appears to live without want. She gets an IUD implanted by Doc (Jason Stange), an old friend of the family, for free. Unbeknownst to Marla, Doc’s gift is an experimental device crafted in a basement that looks like a terrorist cell bomb factory.
The clandestine nature of the surgery recalls how access to basic women’s health care is under attack. The true horror is that certain elements of society are actively seeking to wrest control of women’s bodies away from them. Getting a free exam and an IUD in this fashion is reminiscent of a time when women had to find alternative ways to have their reproductive issues met. Dam-Bates doesn’t provide much, if any, explanation why Doc does what he does other than to illustrate the symbolic horror of having to trust one’s body parts to someone who has no idea what it is like to own those parts. Or worse, has decided they know best for their patients and force it upon them.
After creating such a fleshed-out world in the first 15 minutes, Dam-Bates begins the process of dismantling it after the procedure. The pace dips noticeably as Marla almost disappears. She is in physical pain from the procedure and spends most of this time either taking drugs or leaning on the scenery. After Jake dies unexpectedly under mysterious circumstances, Marla begins to think it might have something to do with her IUD. The pace quickens again as Dam-Bates begins to dip into a horror story about a woman trying to regain control of her own body.
Marla and her friend Jules (Katie Hemming) begin their own investigation into Doc. This is a build-up to a gloriously gory finale as Doc’s perfidy is revealed and retribution dispensed. Lisa van Dam-Bates’s previous production credit is on her IMDB page is “special effects makeup artist,” and her commitment to the craft is evident.
The ending leaves the viewer with a sense that this movie is about more than Marla Mae’s transition from waitress to avenging vagina dentata. Marla Mae feels like it was born out of a deep mistrust of the male-dominated medical field. As a bonus fun fact, Jason Stange, the actor who played Doc, is a real, violent criminal and was arrested as a fugitive during filming.
In conclusion, the combination of good characters, a solid story, excellent special effects, and an overall appearance that belies a humble budget far outweighs the occasionally wooden performances and an overly repetitive section in the middle. It is definitely a film worth checking out, and Lisa van Dam-Bates is an artist to keep an eye on.