Written & Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska
A few years back twin terrors Jen and Sylvia Soska announced their arrival to the filmmaking world with their action packed, gore streaked exploitation flick Dead Hooker In A Trunk. Their debut developed a following in the underground due to the twins ability to craft funny engaging characters and take-no-prisoners attitude towards violence and mayhem. Their follow up American Mary doesn't walk through the door their debut opened-it bursts through the wall Kool-Aid Man style shouting 'Oh Yeah!' at top of its lungs in order to let the horror community know that there's a new pair of voices in town that are going to be reckoned with for years to come.
Impoverished medical student Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle) walks a tightrope that finds her trying to balance her natural genius at surgery against her tendency to zone out on lectures led by her domineering professor (David Lovgren) and a bleak financial situation that finds her days away from having her student aid shut off. A need for quick cash leads Mary to the office of Billy (Anthony Cupo), a low level criminal and strip club owner when circumstances shift unexpectedly and her talents with a scalpel take precedent over her ability to show off her gams.
Word of Mary's talent (and discretion) spread. She's soon called upon by Beatrice (Tristan Risk), a dancer at Billy's club who has undergone multiple surgeries designed to make her look like Betty Boop. Beatrice pays Mary to remove a friend's feminine parts, as the young woman wishes to become a living Barbie Doll so that men will stop sexualizing and fetishizing her. Word of Mary's remarkable places her in high demand, while a horrifying and sickening act leaves Mary little choice but to leave the respected medical world and concentrate her skills in the field of body modification.
The Soska's sophomore effort represents a startling effort in their storytelling and eye towards detail. Colors are vibrant with multiple nods to Argento in the way that Isabelle paints her surroundings and even her own flesh in deep hues of red. The ladies knack for small character building moments is on full display here as each of the players exhibit quirks and foibles that lift them far above one note stereotypes.
An example of this leap forward can be found in a moment remarkably similar to a key scene in Dead Hooker which finds Mary gearing up to operate on someone as a means for revenge. Both scenes make perfect use of music to set the stage. While the former movie used a bit of Beach Boys inspired pop to accentuate the onscreen carnage, the Soskas opt for a sumptuous jazz number this time around. Isabelle takes her precious time sauntering to the operating table while allowing the camera to drink up every inch of her before describing in intricate detail the many ways she plans to right the wrong her victim inflicted on her earlier. The Soskas allow the foreplay to build to its boiling point then cut away before a knife ever sinks in to flesh. The message is clear-they know what audiences expect and even demand, but the directors will be damned if their going to play by any rules besides their own.
American Mary makes sly social commentary without brow beating the audience. As the film unspools you come to understand the “normals” are the ones with callous disdain for anything aside their own agenda while Mary comes to find her own “family” within the world of freaks and criminals. American Mary peels back the superficial layer with which most would judge the people into the modification practice and instead delves into how the act empowers them to feel comfortable within their own skin or ever express a deep love and affection they would not have the capability to do otherwise. There's no better example of this than Risk's Beatrice. Upon her introduction it's easy to see her as a sideshow oddity and dismiss her as deranged. Yet there might not be a character as strong or comfortable in her own skin than Beatrice, and there's certainly no one more loyal to or grateful towards her friends than the young woman.
There's not enough positives to be written about Katherine Isabelle's stunning performance. Early scenes showcase her comic timing with light banter and tone. Make no mistake, despite the seedy terrain the film travels, it's downright funny even at the most inappropriate moments. When events pull the rug out from under the audience and shift the tone to comedic and quirky to sinister and disturbing, Isabelle is more than up to the challenge of shifting gears. As her surgical skill improves her ability to connect with another living soul recedes. Isabelle needs nothing more than the steely look in her eyes to convey how she sees her people as a riddle to crack via the precise nature of her delicate operations. Yet even in her darkest moments, Isabelle elicits sympathy for her performance. Towards the end of the film when she asks “Do you think I'm crazy?” you just want to reach into the screen, pull her close and tell her yes she is, but it couldn't have turned out any other way.
American Mary represents a stunning vision and one of the most original genre films of the year. Delivered without compromise by a pair of fresh independent American Mary provides a cure all for horror fans burned by the cynical assembly line studio system that sees risk only in terms of the negative. It's the final result of two film makers trusting that their instincts and vision can create a singular, unique and beautiful final result.