If you remember Jen and Sylvia Soska from their feature debut, Dead Hooker In A Trunk, their new film American Mary will provide plenty of pleasant surprises. It’s a remarkably solid effort for this pair of up and coming young horror filmmakers and one that bodes well for their future.
Mary Mason is a cash-strapped medical student who gets sucked into the world of strip clubs and underground body modification surgeries after a traumatic experience. Katherine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) portrays Mary with an immense amount of subtlety and charm. She’s studying to be a surgeon and right away, her deadpan voice, sarcastic sense of humor, and fashion sense (including interior decorating skills) prove that she is serious and mature. Wisely, the Soska sisters (who also penned the script) have chosen to make Mary a convincing character, not a bimbo with a tacked-on med school plot device.
Mary doesn’t have time for much besides her schoolwork and it’s quickly obvious she is smart, ambitious, independent, and talented. She doesn’t have time for friends or boyfriends (not that this seems to phase her one bit), but she does spend a lot of time on the phone with her grandmother, Nana, who seems to serve as a surrogate parent.
Desperate for money, and to avoid the unflinching eyes of her tough, vaguely abusive professor Dr. Grant, Mary auditions for a job at a strip club run by the sleazy Billy Barker. And that’s when things get interesting. She agrees to accept five grand—in cash—to try and put back together some poor slob who someone tried to take apart. It’s a harrowing experience and one she doesn’t want to repeat, but then Billy has apparently passed around her resume and phone number and . . . did I mention she’s desperate for money?
The world of body modification, specifically the underground version that “reputable” surgeons apparently refuse to have anything to do with, is presented with a great deal of sympathy and realism. Score another huge point for the Soskas for exploring this milieu instead of exploiting it. As Beatress, Tristan Risk almost steals the entire movie. She’s like Frenchie from Grease, if Frenchie was a stripper obsessed with Betty Boop and body modification. She’s absolutely, adorably perfect in the role.
Intriguingly, although the strip club is well, a strip club, the movie doesn’t try to portray it as anything glamorous or anything cartoonishly awful, either. Again, I applaud the Soskas for showcasing full-figured dancers as well as those who have multiple tattoos, piercings, and crazy haircuts but not making it into a big deal. The cast of characters we meet through Mary are who they are and now they’re part of Mary’s life. In addition, her friendships with Billy and club thug/security guard Lance feel genuine.
Despite all the funny parts in American Mary—and there are a lot of them—the party scene is harrowing, but beautifully and believably rendered. Some critics have felt that Mary’s turn towards the dark side after Dr. Grant drugs and rapes her feels forced. I will state that being the victim of sexual assault makes people do outlandish, self-destructive, and even illegal things. Trust me; it does happen. The fact that Mary feels flattered by the invitation and doesn’t suspect anything nefarious might happen until it’s too late reminds us that for all her tough bravado, she’s still a young woman and relatively naïve.
Mary enacts her revenge by not just quitting medical school and throwing herself fully into the world of extreme body modification, but also by putting the screws (literally) to Dr. Grant in a way that might make even Lisbeth Salander turn pale. The influence of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo felt obvious to me, but more of an homage than a rip-off.
As Mary becomes more and more detached from people and reality, it’s quite fitting that she hones her craft on the person who has repeatedly insisted that surgeons can’t have feelings and they definitely can’t fuck up. In this way, Mary inherits the mantle of Dr. Grant’s star pupil, but not in the way he could ever have envisioned.
Several critics have also complained that the “romance” between Mary and Billy feels forced, but although Mary has ways of fending off any of Billy’s would-be girlfriends, it’s clear that she sees him as a henchman of sorts and not a bona fide love interest. She is incapable of returning his affections; if she was she certainly couldn’t do the horrible things that she does to cover her tracks.
American Mary is a gorgeous-looking film, with excellent frame composition and editing and an invigorating and clever soundtrack. Besides the original score provided by Kevvy, there are several versions of “Ave Maria,” many of which accompany Mary during her surgical procedures. The practical effects, particularly the prosthetics (courtesy of Todd Masters and MastersFX), are outstanding. American Mary is also cognizant of its place in the horror film pantheon: There are nods to Dead Ringers in Mary’s red scrubs as well as a mix of dark comedy, gore, and social commentary similar to the kind Mary Harron injected into her film version of American Psycho.
You might suspect that things in American Mary don’t end so well and you’d be right. Without giving anything away, I will say that the ending is appropriate and surprisingly moving, especially for a film so dependent on black humor.
As far as criticisms of American Mary, for those who felt the film was too long, I’d argue that it was too short and suffers from a consistent lack of pacing in the second half. While the subplot about the enraged husband is necessary and completely believable considering the world Mary has created for herself, the lead-in is too quick and obvious. More scenes to build suspense would have improved things greatly. I’m not sure why the detective had a British accent, but that was another off key note that felt unnecessary. More scenes of the detective that did not involve Mary would probably have fleshed that character out a little bit more as well.
Still, despite its relatively minor flaws, American Mary is fantastic and even more impressive as a second feature film. It’s wonderful to see women writers and directors in horror as well as female characters who aren’t the means to serve male characters’ ends. In fact, when the male characters try to use Mary as a thing, she bites back, and hard.
The Soska twins have said that the title American Mary refers to the idea that Mary is living the American dream, albeit a twisted version and a decidedly convoluted path to financial and professional success. I think that Mary can also be viewed as a kind of post-millennial, feminist Victor Frankenstein, only she creates new physical forms from bodies which are still alive. Since Mary Shelley created the character of Frankenstein, I feel that naming the character Mary may be more than a coincidence.
Regardless of the origins of the title, there is a lot to love about the character of Mary Mason as well as American Mary the film. I look forward to what the Soska sisters offer us next.
American Mary made its Canadian premiere as part of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival on October 18. It has been picked up for distribution by Anchor Bay. Keep in touch with the Soska sisters on Twitter or their website for find out more details on release dates.