American Mary (2012)
By: Fin H. on November 25, 2012 | Comments
Director: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska
Starring:: Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, David Lovgren, Paula Lindberg
Screnplay: Sylvia Soska, Jen Soska
Country: Canada
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My first taste of the work of twin Canadian filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska came as a sticky confection entitled Dead Hooker in a Trunk at the A Night Of Horror film festival last year in Sydney. Well, with a title like that, how could it not appeal to my warped sensibilities? Made by two loonies on a budget of two loonies (that's slang for a Canadian dollar coin by the way), Dead Hooker was a cheap n' cheerful, blood-spattered jaunt around the suburbs of Vancouver with the Soska sisters and friends. Hard not to love, with the smears of gore daubed all over its adorable little face and its gleefully filthy mouth, Dead Hooker stood out by having (amongst other body parts), a great deal of heart and surprising flashes of intimacy and pathos. Now the Soskas are back with a budget (thanks in no small part to their parents having re-mortgaged the house – watch out for daddy Soska in a tiny role as a boisterous Hungarian Josef Mengele wannabe) and the results are gratifyingly awesome.

American Mary is a dark, deliciously funny character study of young Mary Mason, a surgeon-in-training with financial woes and a regrettable penchant for making Godawful decisions in life. Played by the lovely Katherine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps, Freddy Vs. Jason), Mary is up to her swanlike neck in debt, so in a bid to keep the wolves from the door she auditions as a stripper at her local den of sleazery (the fact that she diligently brings along her CV is fairly indicative of Mary's level of innocence at this point). When a crisis arises the club owner, Billy, aware of Mary's medical training, offers her a substantial fee for a one-off gig as a mob sawbones. Mary ums and ahs briefly before making the first in a series of regrettable decisions.

The rest of the film follows Mary's delvings into the world of off-the-books extreme body modification, a field in which she eventually becomes the notorious dark mistress. Drawing and guiding her into this world is Beatress (Tristan Risk), a dancer who has opted to become the living incarnation of Bettie Boop (and looks pretty much as odd as that sounds). Other colourful characters she encounters include Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg), a woman with the hauntingly surreal visage of a doll who wishes to become as anatomically incorrect as her shelf-sitting inspirations, and the Soska sisters themselves as twin teutonic body mod kingpins with grand designs for themselves.

Whereas Dead Hooker in a Trunk was a furious, ramshackle donkey ride, American Mary is infinitely more measured than its predecessor. Whilst it would've been easy to frantically pile on the berko body horror shocks and pummel the audience into submission, this is not that kind of film; the Soskas have kept the action deliberate and steady to let the story unfold at a natural pace. It is a credit to their prodigious talents, too, that each and every one of the human oddities and seedy crooks on-screen is carefully etched out in three dimensions as achingly human. Even Billy, potentially a caricature of violent, manipulative masculinity at its worst, is fleshed out into a real character. It cannot be overstated just how much of a quantum leap forward the Soskas have made in honing their craft.

Strong performances abound, with burlesque dancer Tristan Risk mixing sad vulnerability and wilful kookiness in equal measures to bring the bizarre Beatress to life. Isabelle is absolutely mesmerising. Whilst most genre fans would agree that her appearances as Ginger Fitzgerald were laudable, the required acting range extended from "slightly stroppy" to "very surly"; here she delivers a subtle, nuanced performance which captures a complex character arc without ever resorting to violently unnatural behavioural swerves.

A key turning point in the story of Mary Mason is the scene in which she is subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of a supposedly trustworthy authority figure. This scene prompted at least two walkouts from the screening which I attended, despite being relatively restrained and low-key (well, for… y'know… a rape scene!) but it is this abuse that spurs Mary to do what victimised people so often do – find their own power in whatever form is accessible to them. From that point on Mary is openly courting disaster and the chain of events which ensues has a sickening sense of inevitability about it.

It serves as a squishy sort of symbol that, whilst both Dead Hooker and American Mary feature unwanted amputations, American Mary's are done with surgical precision whereas the one in Dead Hooker is done with a Mack truck. Yes, there is plenty of icky surgery, both forced and willing, but the film is never in danger of falling under the lazy, fuck-witted umbrella term "torture porn." As one of the Soskas noted during the post-film Q&A, "I could easily do a Hostel – I could pull a Hostel outta my ass for you no problem!" American Mary is an altogether more interesting beast, and if it is any indicator of what to expect from the Soskas in future, we should be salivating in anticipation.
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