Mary Mason a struggling surgical school student stumbles into the world of body modification to make extra money to help fund her degree. When an incident causes her to re-examin her values and use her skills to her advantage to extract revenge.
American Mary is a revenge film at its core, but set in the world of body modification. There are hundreds of revenge films, but a film about body modification; well not so many. Actually I struggled to find one, tattoos yes a few, but body modification, no nothing but American Mary. Maybe that is why it appeals so much, it’s something different, something new. Some may find it bizarre, some will find it disgusting but some will find it quite interesting. I’m of the latter opinion but it’s something I wouldn’t actually do myself.
While I wouldn’t call American Mary an out and out horror film, it does have some horror elements, it’s a little gruesome with its surgical cuts here and there; but nothing I found too unpleasant. The Soska’s do refrain from been overly graphic in the surgeries and even Mary’s abuse is handled with a great deal of restraint; actually making it a much more powerful scene in the end.
While it’s the revenge that drives the film, it’s actually the body modification I found much more interesting. While it doesn’t go over the top we do get a glimpse at some of the modifications people have done. Teeth Sharpening, Implants (a device placed under the skin for decorative purposes) or to create horns, even eye implants, it’s all quite fascinating really and makes a great back drop for the film.
The Soska’s step from behind the camera as German twins (with suspect accents) who feel they want a more physical connection with each other, while I don’t think many actually go in for swapping body parts, it was still a fun cameo from the sisters. Tristan Risk is Beatress a woman with a striking resemblance to Betty Boop and a role which didn’t look that easy to play; however Risk is gives a wonderful performance. Yet Paula Lindberg’s character Ruby shows that sometimes it can be taken too far as she strives to remove her sexuality, her new mannequin-esq features do not impress her boyfriend at all.
At the heart of the film though is Katharine Isabelle as Mary; her performance is outstanding. Isabelle plays her character perfectly she’s not sassy, a little naïve but she’s not too vulnerable either. Just a struggling student trying to get through medical school. While her naivety does get her into trouble, her transformation after isn’t radical. She doesn’t become some super killing machine, but it’s sufficient to make people fear her. Mary uses what’s she knows best, her surgical skills, nothing new from other revenge films, or serial killers, but how many use actually body mods as torture, not many I suspect.
The rest of the cast are fine, with Antonio Cupo giving a very solid as Billy. Though I’m not sure about John Emmet Tracy though, he seemed very wooden to me, but that’s just a small blip in the cast.
The script is very good, it never panders to the audience and has some nice touches of humour throughout; mostly delivered by Isabelle, and her delivery is excellent. The direction from the Soska sister’s is very assured considering this is their second feature film. They are a fine prospect for the future of horror films, that’s for sure.
A couple of years ago the Soska’s were the toast of Frightfest. Their follow up to their debut, Dead Hooker In A Trunk, rocked Frightfesters world with a revenge flick that took things to an all new level. Truth be told, while the story certainly ticks the revenge flick box, it is so much more.
When we meet Mary (a career to date best from Katherine Isabelle) as a medical student struggling both to pay the rent whilst struggling to stay awake in class, little do we understand the world to which we are about to be thrust. When going for an interview for erotic dancing, her skills as a trainee surgeon make her a lot of money in return for patching someone up. The path set, ‘Doctor Mary’ as she’s coined, is pursued, and offered a great deal of money to remove, cut, add, amputate, and swap body parts as she becomes the go to girl for the more extreme side of body modification.
At the beginning of this journey Mary feels physically sick, but in a very short time even the most extreme procedures receive mere shrugs.. She has found her place in life. Unfortunately this enlightenment occurs as Mary is drugged and raped by her tutor surgeon. What results is a closed off, cold, driven character whose revenge is truly disturbing, for whilst the scumbag doctor reaps what he sows, even Mary’s underworld friends eventually grow fearful of her.
This film can be easily viewed as a tragedy, Mary’s own actions ultimately lead to her downfall. There is an inevitability that things cannot end well for her. Whilst the film is a triumph for all involved it is a triumph for The Soska’s and Isabelle. As Mary, Isabelle is in turn vulnerable, funny, and coldly calculating. This is a film that stands or falls on its central character and Katherine Isabelle doesn’t disappoint. But the powerhouse Soska’s sisters excel here. For their second feature this is an incredibly mature work. The directing style never overpowers the story, but what Jen and Sylvia Soska do here looks deceptively easy. However, to introduce this entire sub culture of body modification, populated by a cast of over the top characters, all within the basic structure of a revenge flick, all of the time serving the story, serving the central character, makes for a very assured piece of work. The greatest challenge for the Soska’s is likely to be, how do you continue to build on what you’ve already achieved, when you’ve raised the bar so very high? It will certainly be interesting to see.
A few years back I was settling into my seat at the old Empire 1 screen on the last day of Frightfest. Mike ran up “The directors are here for the next film” He said. “Oh?” “Yeah, they tweeted a picture of their breakfast”! Bless him, he’s easily pleased.
I understood why he was excited (not in that way – filthy sod), when the Soska Sisters finally took the stage to introduce American Mary in their matching medical aprons and cocktail dresses. Then the lights dimmed, and what followed was a refreshingly different and unique film that stood out against the backdrop of the other 20 something other films I saw that weekend. It KILLED, and for good reason, it was GREAT. In the next six months I watched it 3 times at different events, each time I enjoyed it more and more.
Revisiting the film after a few years and re-looking at it with fresh eyes has made me notice 2 things.
1 – The movie is not without its faults (to be honest, there are a few).
2 – I still really love this movie.
The story revolves around a gifted, but struggling medical student Mary Mason (Played by Katherine Isabelle), who is short on money and in desperate need of a influx of cash. She falls in with strip club owner and dwindling mob boss Billy, and then (through a turn of events) ends up in the body modifications community.
Katherine Isabelle as the aforementioned Mary gives an incredibly subtle and brilliant performance of the troubled student finding her feet in and out of medical school. She is also unnerving in delivering a performance, centering around an almost seemingly nonexistent conscience. (She freaked a friend of mine out so bad watching the film he was too scared to walk directly past her in the foyer of the cinema). Likewise Antonio Cupo as club owner Billy and Twain Holiday as bouncer Lance give great performances showing great depth to the characters and the detailed back stories they have been given by the Soska’s.
The one scene which needs to be mentioned is the turning point in the film, its a minor spoiler but feel it should be highlighted. The rape scene is shown with graphic and uncomfortable detail. Many directors won’t try and use a scene of this nature in this way, mainly as its difficult to show something like this without it becoming mildly sexy instead of horrific on camera, or becoming a scene which will make an audience uncomfortable and will bring a films momentum to a screeching halt. Luckily (somehow) the scene in the film does neither and it works as seamless catalyst into the second act of the movie.
The film’s letdowns are mostly due to its low budget John Emmet Tracy as Detective Dolor is a strange and boring performance…. its almost comatose in its delivery. In some scenes the voices don’t seem in sync with the action and appear almost dubbed. Its especially notable with some of the scenes containing Beatrice and Ruby, most likely because of the heavy prosthetics the pair ware meaning their mouths move less. The less said about the ‘Demon Twins of Berlin’ accents the better, (think a bad female Arnold Schwarzenegger).
American Mary as a film pretty much comes out of nowhere when you compare to the trashy debut of the Soska’s. The schlocky ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk’ is a great fun low budget movie, but American Mary is a serious jump forward, on nearly every level. (Think Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever being followed by the far superior Hostel).
American Mary is more a drama with horrorish tones and themes than an out and out traditional horror film. The body count is very minimal, there is not too much gore, but it just goes to dark places and deals with the dark side of peoples personalities we would rather not think about.
The film and its tone is not for everyone, but in saying that I’m often surprised when people don’t like it. My cousin summed it up best – Was a strange film that.