FrightFest 2012 Review: American Mary (Nia’s take)

Posted on August 28, 2012 by Ben No Comments


Review by Nia Edwards-Behi

Editor’s note: following on from Steph’s review, here’s another look at the film from Nia. Two reviews of the same film back-to-back might seem like overkill, but Nia has so much to say on the subject, how could we decline? Just call us the Soskas Appreciation Society – and beware of spoilers after the bloody pic.

Back in May, I described American Mary as the most original film I’d seen for a very long time. Months later, and having watched a great deal of upcoming horror films in my capacity as a festival programmer, I can say the statement stands. The film has just received a special preview screening at London’s Fright Fest, having been picked up by the wonderful folk at Universal, where it deservedly met a rapturous reception. I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a possibility that I’m somewhat blinkered when it comes to the Soskas. I’m lucky enough to be able to call the twins my friends, but regardless of that, I believe American Mary to be an important and vital horror film. Modern horror cinema seems to have entered the era of found footage and ordeal horror, and the obsession with remakes lingers on still. When a truly good horror film comes along, it shines all the brighter, not only for being wonderful in and of itself, but for having the guts to break away from its already stagnant peers. Such a film is American Mary.

Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) is a promising medical student training to be a surgeon. Facing increasing financial difficulties, Mary searches for jobs for which she’s far over-qualified. Attending an interview with Billy (Antonio Cupo), a local strip-club owner and gangster, Mary finds herself able to make a quick wad of cash in exchange for practising her burgeoning surgical skills. Word gets out of Mary’s underground slicing, and she is unwillingly recruited by Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk) to help her friend, Ruby RealGirl (Paula Lindberg), who desires unusual surgery. Still desperate for money, Mary agrees. When the medical community she longs to join betrays her, Mary finds herself a new career performing body modifications – some on unwilling victims. Though most of her clients bring her financial security and admiration for her work, Mary finds herself increasingly thrown into a dark and uncontrollable world.

Although worlds apart, there are two ways in which American Mary and its predecessor, Dead Hooker in a Trunk are comparable. Both tell highly interesting and original stories, while at the same time paying homage to the genre. In Dead Hooker that originality came from the characters themselves, all of whom were somehow sympathetic and sweet, despite being purposefully two-dimensional in nomenclature and superficial behaviours. Otherwise the film was a spot-on homage to grindhouse exploitation filmmaking, in tone and in production. American Mary pays as much homage to classic monster movies as it does to body horror and Asian horror; while offering an original monster-heroine and a story I can’t say I’ve ever seen before. Without even broaching the film’s content, though, it is technically brilliant. From its production design, to its performances, to its soundtrack, American Mary is a beautifully put together film.

At the film’s core is Katharine Isabelle’s truly remarkable performance as Mary. She is simultaneously self-assured and vulnerable – on the one hand defiant when she’s told off in class, on the other nervously smoothing out her clothes when trying to impress. This duality is what’s preyed on by those who should be nurturing her talent, and in many ways they light the spark that creates the monster. Although eventually monstrous, Mary is never terrifying. It’s fully clear why other characters in the film are frightened of her, but as an audience member we are not invited to be scared of her. We see so much of Mary that it is always possible to sympathise with her. This is down to the wonderful performance, and the wise choice to allow Isabelle to gesture, rather than speak Mary’s complexities. Indeed, a lot of Mary’s dialogue is darkly funny, and Isabelle boasts some wonderful comic timing in the film.

Isabelle’s is not the only remarkable performance in the film, however. A stand out from an array of secondary characters is Tristan Risk as Beatress Johnson. Beatress has literally transformed herself into Betty Boop, through cosmetic surgery, altering her voice, and perfecting her mannerisms. Risk’s performance, under heavy prosthetic make-up, is a delight, as she not only performs the mimicry of Boop, but performs the character of Beatress too. Initially seeming harmlessly deranged, Beatress slowly reveals herself as not quite so innocent. She’s a hugely likeable character, however, and Risk’s performance is revelatory. Beatress is also very funny, one hysterical c-bomb getting its own round of applause from the FrightFest audience. The rest of the supporting cast is strong, with notable performances from David Lovgreen, Twan Holliday, Paula Lindberg and John Emmett Tracy.

The film’s production design complements its performances. Dark yet playful, the film’s sets, locations and costumes emphasise and underline the action. The best example of this is through Mary’s costumes. Stylish from the outset, Mary increasingly boasts an array of specially designed work wear – from red surgical scrubs to a latex butcher’s apron. Likewise Mary’s apartment begins life as a quirky homestead, but soon makes way for her work, to the point where she moves to live elsewhere in order to better support her life, and gone is any sense of homeliness. Completing the film’s feel is a great soundtrack, packed with great songs, some expected horror scoring, and an absolutely inspired use of Ave Maria.

As I’ve said, as well as being technically wonderful, American Mary pays tribute to other horror films and traditions in a subtle way. It’s apt that the film has been picked up by Universal, as Mary herself is, in many ways, a classic horror monster. She’s sympathetic and she’s vulnerable – and she’s deadly. If Robin Wood’s argument that in classic horror the monster and the heroine – and that’s heroine, not protagonist – are allowed moments of recognition in each other, then in Mary we see both, combined, and she is the one who drives the story. There is another wonderful way in which American Mary plays with horror conventions, but it involves a fairly hefty SPOILER, so beware the two paragraphs below.

SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

Mary is drugged and raped by her tutor, Dr. Grant (David Lovgreen), when he invites her to a sleazy sex party after assuming that her new found income is because she has become a prostitute. Dr. Grant is the first to face Mary’s wrath at the tip of her scalpel, as she makes vengeful use of her new-found body modification skills. However, this is no conventional rape-revenge plot. Normally, in rape-revenge films, the rape occurs, often protractedly, and is followed by a definitive and lethal revenge. Mary does not murder Dr. Grant. Rather, she subjects him to a long, drawn-out, living nightmare as she changes his body entirely and irreversibly. If the fairly definitive revenges taken in traditional rape-revenge narratives might be equated, figuratively, with the lack of focus on the aftermath of rape in its depiction in film, then the revenge element of American Mary very much seeks to readdress this huge imbalance. The depiction of rape in horror films seemed to have become something of a hot topic during FrightFest, with many other films screened at the festival seemingly doing it very, very wrongly. It seems to me that increasingly rape is often used now in horror films as a throw away plot device or a useful tool for making a bad guy seem worse. This is not remotely the case with American Mary, whereby Mary’s assault is committed by someone she knows and trusts, who has been depicted as a well-meaning, even nice (albeit stern) tutor. Given recent reprehensible comments regarding rape by politicians in the USA and the UK, and undoubtedly elsewhere, this factor seems to me to be incredibly pertinent and important.

Following on from the above, the frequent and traditional depiction of law enforcement in post-1970s horror as being mostly incompetent is done somewhat differently in American Mary. Often this incompetence is portrayed through disinterest, lack of skill, or corruption in the police force or judicial system. Detective Dolor (John Emmett Tracy) is thorough and well-meaning. It is only through Mary’s lack of co-operation that he is rendered incompetent. He’s an important character in this respect, in that he’s probably the only male character with significant screen time in a position of authority who doesn’t abuse that position. Other characters are protective and respectful of Mary – particularly Lance (Twan Holliday), in some rather wonderful scenes – but they too are fairly marginalised or low on any sort of traditional societal ladder. Detective Dolor is important, then, insofar as he ensures that the film is never dealing in black and white depictions of what type of person is good and what type of person is bad.

END SPOILER END SPOILER END SPOILER

Body modification plays a huge role in American Mary and it’s testament to the Soskas’ professionalism that they never once portray the community in a way that is disrespectful. This isn’t a film that uses a community or a subculture as a cheap gimmick, but embraces it, consults it, and portrays it as entirely healthy. It’s refreshing to see such due care and attention paid in a film like this. As well as the real body modifications seen in the film, there are, of course, those less consensual modifications and surgeries that take places. The defiantly practical effects on display in the film are glorious, the work by MastersFX truly impressive.

The final scene of American Mary is incredibly clever and surprisingly moving, reflective of a subtle thread of truth that has run throughout the film about Mary. Although she can save lives as a surgeon and allow others to fully express themselves through performing body modifications, she ultimately cannot fix herself. That being said, American Mary is in no way a downbeat film. It’s challenging without being an endurance test. It’s funny without being silly. It’s sexy without being gratuitous. Jen and Sylvia Soska have cannily made a second film that is nothing like their first. They completely defy expectation, and have made a film that is leaps and bounds ahead of many, if not most, of its peers. American Mary is ultimately mature, intelligent and subtle without being in any way boring, and is at all times entertaining. With this film, Jen and Sylvia deserve every single success that I’m sure is headed their way.

Look out for American Mary on the festival circuit over the coming months, ahead of a release early next year.

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