FrightFest 2012 Review: American Mary
Review by Stephanie Scaife
Although my time at FrightFest was brief this year, I did manage to catch Jen and Sylvia Soska’s eagerly anticipated follow up to their cult debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009), American Mary. This time they’ve forgone the B-movie aesthetic and produced something altogether more polished and unusual: a surreal surgical horror, a contemporary take on the genre that has produced the likes of Georges Franju’s macabre classic Eyes Without a Face (1960). This is without a doubt a tricky subject matter to tackle, and the girls attack it with an impressive amount of gusto.
Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle) is a med student with serious financial woes and as a last resort she applies to an online ad for work as a masseuse at a seedy strip club. Chance would have it that during her interview with the owner Billy (Antonio Cupo) one of his lackeys has taken things one step too far and she’s offered cold hard cash, no question asked, to stitch up a badly wounded man. Mary is reluctant at first; but it not only offers her a way to hone her skills as a surgeon but to earn $5000 without having to massage skeezy dudes in her underwear.
Not long afterwards a dancer from the club by the name of Beatress shows up at Mary’s apartment asking her to consider doing more under-the-table surgical procedures. Beatress herself is a piece of work; surgically altered to the extreme in a bid to look like 1930’s cartoon character Betty Boop, and is played with aplomb by Canadian Burlesque dancer Tristan Risk, who comes close to stealing the entire film. Initially Mary is reluctant to get involved in this bizarre and illegal underworld of extreme plastic surgery and body modification, but the money proves too appealing and she agrees to meet with Beatress’ friend Ruby RealGirl (Paula Lindberg) who wants to turn herself in to a real life doll. The results of which will undoubtedly make even a seasoned horror fan squirm.
Due to tragic circumstances Mary is forced to quit med school and as a result she delves deeper into this world of specialist surgery, and when I say body modification I don’t mean piercings or tattoos; this is more along the lines of voluntary amputations and the like. Together with Billy, who is equally scared and enthralled by Mary, and Beatress who ultimately is as close as Mary comes to having a friend, she carves a niche for herself that becomes increasingly lucrative and dangerous until things spiral out of control both for Mary and those around her.
There are many things to admire about the Soska’s sophomore effort. It looks fantastic for a start thanks to cinematographer Brian Pearson, and the acting is top notch especially by Katherine Isabelle who plays Mary as an impenetrable ice-queen who is clearly one step away from falling into the abyss, along with the aforementioned Tristan Risk and a uniformly strong supporting cast. American Mary is also not entirely what I’d expected, and I would say that it benefitted as a result. What I got was something altogether unusual, a world where people do not look or act like you’d expect. As much as I hate to use this term, it really is the best way to describe the characters in the film: they are undeniably Lynchian, providing something that is on one hand completely believable but on the other entirely unimaginable. This in itself is American Mary’s strong suit, and by giving the audience this surreal feeling of the uncanny it often results in unexpected but not unwelcome humour.
I’d strongly recommend American Mary, although it’s not without its flaws; at times it feels particularly rushed, and some plot lines either peter out or are left unexplained, whilst time is freely given to somewhat unnecessary scenes, such as the Soskas’ own cameo, which is amusing but doesn’t exactly aid the plot any. Although of course being left wondering at the end of a film is not altogether a cause for concern and my gripes are minor when as a whole American Mary is a successful and fun oddity that doesn’t patronise its audience or the subject matter, and gives us something entirely original in a genre that is often tired and predictable, so for that I take my hat off to the twins. Their enthusiasm and excitement for the genre and for what they do is infectious and as young, female filmmakers who don’t take themselves too seriously they are a breath of fresh air. I see many great things for them in the future. I for one can’t wait to see what they do next.
American Mary is set for a UK release in early 2013 from Universal – and this is not the last you’ll be hearing of it at Brutal As Hell.