There’s a particularly interesting resurgence going on in the horror genre right now. A lot of new, powerful voices are making themselves heard through the darkest of cinema’s dream lands, and with their second feature American Mary we can safely add Jen & Sylvia Soska (aka The Twisted Twins) to the roster of Ones To Watch.
Where their previous film Dead Hooker In A Trunk was a nod to the excesses of grindhouse cinema, they have openly admitted that American Mary is sculpted more in the mould of their European and Asian influences. It tells throughout. American Mary is a chilly, meticulous affair, and one that I have been looking forward to ever since I heard it mentioned in the same breath as Excision (one of last year’s real highlights). And whilst they both land neatly in the sub-category of surgical horror, they are altogether different beasts. If Excision is Saved By The Bell, then American Mary is Saved By The Bell: The College Years. Except it doesn’t suck.
Katharine Isabelle plays the titular Mary, eking her way through medical school on an increasingly tight budget. Her work with a scalpel is clearly where her passions lie, and the film opens with her practicing her sutures on a trussed turkey carcass. When her financial situation grows dire, she turns to seedy nightclub Bourbon-A-Go-Go to supplement her meager incomings. But with her resumé in hand, socially awkward club owner Billy (Anonio Cupo) offers her a job more tailored to her abilities than twirling around a steel pole. Soon Mary is being introduced to a world of body modification and illegal surgeries, a subculture that at first repels her, then compulsively draws her away from her schooling.
Refreshingly, the body mod set presented in American Mary are in no way demonised. On the contrary, when compared to the so-called ‘civilised’ jackals of the medical profession, they are heartfelt and thoughtful people. Behind their eccentric appearances, Mary’s new acquaintances yearn for expression and belonging in their own bodies. Just like Mary, we warm to their dreams. This is most successfully realised in the character of Beatress (Tristan Rusk), a Betty Boop lookalike who acts as our intro into a world of after-hours veterinary practices and seedy basement backrooms.
Mary’s new life soon eclipses her old one, especially as her former mentor Dr Grant (David Lovgren) betrays her trust in a sequence memorable for how genuinely uncomfortable and downright unpleasant it is. Mary’s revenge is swift and merciless, as her release from conventional society provokes a renaissance in her psyche. Working outside of a world with rules, Mary quickly rearranges her moral code. Her surgical tools become instruments for body manipulation and body mutilation.
This would be so-so exploitation material if it weren’t for the craft at work here. For one thing Katharine Isabelle positively owns the film as Mary, and in an alternate world where films like this are more openly acknowledged she would be a shoe-in for countless award nominations. She hits every beat perfectly, be it incredulous disbelief, shell shock, or murderous rage. Initially motivated by money, after some horrific experiences Mary becomes a more complex creation. By the end of the film she’s asking if she’s crazy. Wherever that line is, it isn’t straightforward in Mary’s case.
The Soska Sisters themselves (both behind and in front of the camera in a delicious cameo) are firmly in control of their work. Visually, American Mary is frequently beautiful, sharing a detached iciness that recalls Dead Ringers as much as Audition. High praise indeed.
All of which tends toward the presumption that there is precious little wrong with this dark little fairy tale. Except… that’s not exactly the case. Whilst Isabelle dominates as Mary, other performers are less sure-footed. And if the Soskas show here that they are adept at building and sustaining an atmosphere of morbid curiosity, the film’s final twenty minutes or so pack less of a punch than the first hour promises. Mary’s story seems to simply run out of steam. The film’s final shots are as beautiful as they are cruel, yet the story beats that lead us there feel like the motions of a lesser movie.
Still, there is plenty of originality and savvy here. Enough to make American Mary a resounding success story and required viewing for genre fans. The script is witty and respectful to those elements it might easily have manipulated. Nevertheless, the movie definitely serves its needs as a horror picture. Strong stomachs are a prerequisite.
Mary’s surgery may be irregular around the margins, but that title and that turkey imagery are no coincidence. With this movie the Soskas have applied cosmetic surgery to the American dream, cutting it to a more dangerous template. And whilst Katharine Isabelle stalks her way through a variety of fetishistic medical outfits, Mary is objectified by the men in the movie more than her co-directors.
For anyone with an inherent distrust of tidy, acceptable society, or anyone looking for something more sophisticated than the usual suspects provided by the Hollywood horror factory American Mary remains something of a must, even if the scars are still visible when the procedure is over.