Stars: Katherine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, David Lovgren, Paula Lindberg, Clay St. Thomas, John Emmet Tracy, Twan Holliday, Nelson Wong, Sylvia Soska and Jen Soska.
Writers/Directors: Sylvia Soska and Jen Soska.
It may be student loan repayments that drive our anti-heroine Mary Mason into the dark underworld of body-modification surgery, but it is her greed and growing sense of vengeful power that keeps her mired there in American Mary, the icky but supremely effective sophomore effort from Canadian twin-sister filmmaking team Jen and Sylvia Soska.
Played with an understated but ever-present fetishistic glee by the stunning Katharine Isabelle (star of the Ginger Snaps trilogy), Mary is introduced being harshly motivated by her professor, Dr Grant (David Lovgren). She holds her own, even exuding a certain compulsion for the attention being given her. But she is cash-strapped and, in the first of several bad decisions she makes, applies for a hostess role at strip club run by Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo). Having revealed her training in her resume (“We don’t get given a lot of CV’s here, Mary” says Billy), her first night sees her earning unexpected dollars when called upon to perform illegal surgery to save a roughed-up customer.
Word gets around that Mary is not above illicitly plying her skills, a valued rarity for those with a penchant for bizarre surgical enhancements. Most prominently featured is Beatress (Tristan Risk), whose ‘alterations’ reflect her Betty Boop obsession, and who introduces Mary to Ruby (Paula Lindberg). Ruby wants to be an anatomically accurate real-life Barbie Doll and the film does not shy away from the details of the procedure (and begins to recall in tone David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, its iconic red surgical-garb referenced later in the film).
All the while, Mary remains focussed on her career and is thrilled to be invited by her hospital mentor Dr Walsh (Clay St. Thomas) to a late-night party. But things go horribly wrong and soon Mary, with the help of the strip-joint’s soft-hearted, hard-knuckled bouncer Lance (Twan Holliday), unleashes her medical prowess upon those that have exploited her.
The Soska Sisters (who make an extended cameo appearance as the ultimate bod-mod aficionados, The Berlin Twins) have progressed their storytelling skills immeasurably since their 2009 debut, Dead Hooker in a Trunk. American Mary reflects a far sleeker European aesthetic and technical proficiency; the pair cite Thomas Alfredsen’s Let the Right One In as a major influence (as well as the gruesome Asian thriller, I Saw The Devil). The film is beautifully framed and shot in a manner that reflects respect and fascination for the practices of bod-modders, however grotesque (be prepared for forthright depictions of split tongues, devil-horn implants and genital mutilation...for starters).
Narratively, the film stumbles occasionally. The Soska’s seem bound to some tropes that never amount to much – the perfunctory trajectory of Det Dolor (John Emmet Tracy); dream/fantasy sequences that pull the viewer out of Mary’s real world, which is sufficiently nightmarish in its own regard. Also, that a top-tier med-student should immediately leap to a sordid fleshpit to make quick cash is a bit much, her actions necessitated by story and not logic.
But American Mary soars when The Soska’s play to their strengths. With their up-for-anything leading lady totally synched to their vision, they have crafted a shocking, slyly funny work of baroque modern horror. Delving thematically into myopic vengeance and soulless immorality as motivating forces, it is a vivid slice (no pun intended) of slow-burn, visceral terror and signals the arrival of Jen and Sylvia Soska as much-watch genre auteurs.