Synopsis: Twisted Twins Jen and Sylvia Soska are back with their stunning follow-up to the indie hit Dead Hooker in a Trunk. AMERICAN MARY is the story of a medical student named Mary who is growing increasingly broke and disenchanted with medical school and the established doctors she once idolized. The allure of easy money sends a desperate Mary through the messy world of underground surgeries which leaves more marks on her than the so-called freakish clientele. Appearances are everything.
American Mary 7.25
eyelights: Katharine Isabelle’s performance. the basic plot. the make-up effects.
eyesores: the third act’s construction. the abrupt finale. the make-up effects.
“I’m changing specialties Dr. Grant… Have you ever heard of body modification?”
Mary Mason is a med student who can’t seem to get her act together; though she knows her stuff, she’s undisciplined in school and in life in general. Saddled with mounting debt, and unpaid bills, she applies for a waitressing job in a strip club.
While she’s there, the club owner has a medical emergency and offers her five thousand dollars to fix the problem – no questions asked. Though she returns traumatised by the violence that she encountered, her financial worries are alleviated.
But soon she receives a visit from Beatress, a body modification addict who seeks help for her friend, Ruby, who is desperate to become a real life doll. Beatrice not only pays Mary two grand just for showing up, but much more to do the procedure.
It’s not long before Mary becomes an internet sensation and is sucked into a world of underground bod mod. And while she is now wealthy, and has even opened up a secret facility to do her work, she is slowly becoming disconnected from her humanity.
It may be the death of her.
‘American Mary’ is a 2012 motion picture by Jen and Sylvia Soska, the Canadian filmmaker duo who made their name with ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk’. Though it didn’t get a wide release at the time, the grisly horror film has become a small cult classic.
Personally, I faced it with some trepidation, being vaguely aware of its subject matter: I’m no great fan of bod mods in real life, and drastic plastic surgery always makes me feel uncomfortable due to its freakish results; I can only see deformity.
But I watched it because of the lovely Katharine Isabelle, who was so terrific in the ‘Ginger Snaps‘ series, and because I was curious to see what the Soska twins were about; I felt as though I’d be missing out on a key moment in indie horror history.
I certainly would have.
Though I found the picture hard to stomach, what with all the grotesquery on display, ‘American Mary;’ tells its story pretty well, in light of the fact that it was shot over the course of only 15 days and with a comparatively minuscule budget.
It also made use of practical effects as well as real life members of the bod mod community to bring to life its stomach-churning surgeries. This explains why so much of it looks this real; had they used CGI something would seemed amiss.
What confuses the data is that extreme plastic surgery already doesn’t look real, so the make-up couldn’t make its characters look too normal, but also not too fake either. As for body modification, by its very nature it defies the laws of nature.
Well, the Soska sisters got that aspect right.
They also got Mary’s character arc: she begins by being knowledgeable but careless, and grows more confident, more clinical, with experience – but also gradually becomes detached as she becomes desensitized to her gruesome new reality.
…detached to the point where she crosses a moral threshold.
It’s all spurred on by rape: while on a medical residency, she is invited to a party one evening by Dr. Janusz, her supervisor, where she is drugged and violated by Dr. Grant, her former surgery teacher. The next day, she quits medical school.
But not without exacting her revenge: she pays Billy Barker, the strip club owner, five grand to have his boys kidnap Dr. Grant and truss him up in a secluded area – after which she performs a series of surgeries on him over the course of 14 hours.
Dr. Grant has permanently scarred her life, and she does the same too him.
Frankly, to me this was the strongest part of the picture. While I found Mary rather naive for staying at a soirée that had the vibe of a boys’ club orgy, I was thrilled to see her turn the tables on her aggressor instead of remaining the victim.
It doesn’t mean that what she did was right (revenge isn’t usually the best course of action!), but it was certainly satisfying. It also sent out the clear message that no form of sexual coercion is tolerable, even if the victim can’t remember it.
And that there could be consequences.
After that traumatic experience, Mary suffers from PTSD and pulls away from her humanity, remaining tethered to it solely through her regular contacts with her “nana”. It isn’t long before she is so shell-shocked that very little moves her anymore.
Isabelle’s performance was superb; she transitioned Mary from awkward to confident in just the right way. And while I’ll grant anyone that it’s probably easy to be emotionless, she made the shift gradually enough that I believed every moment of it.
Where the picture stumbles is in its construction: there were times when scenes were inserted in places that seemed nonsensical to me. And the third act just limped to its conclusion where it obviously tried to build up the suspense; instead it fell flat.
Still, while ‘American Mary’ was difficult for me to stomach, it’s not without its redeeming qualities. Will I ever watch it again? I highly doubt it: it’s way too grotesque for me to handle again. But I would certainly recommend it to the right audience.
…freaks of a feather, I’d wager.
Date of viewing: October 7, 2016