American Mary (Cert 18)
1 Disc (Distributor: Universal) Running Time: 98 minutes approx.
A brilliant but broke student surgeon Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) finds herself resorting to applying for work at a local strip bar run by the sleazy Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo). As luck would have it, her medical credentials sees Mary offered a job of a different kind when a slash victim in the back room of the club needs sewing up. The next day, Mary receives a visit from stripper Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk), a plastic surgery addict, who offers Mary a large sum of money to operate on a friend of hers. Soon Mary gains a reputation within the underground surgery world and enough money to finish medical school and train as a full time surgeon. When invited to a surgeons’ party by her mentors Dr Walsh (Clay St. Thomas) and Dr. Grant (David Lovgren), Mary is drugged and raped, leaving her with a desire for revenge in the only way she knows how.
Canadian twins Jen and Sylvia Soska made their name with 2009’s low budget grindhouse tribute Dead Hooker In A Trunk, offering a unique feminine take on the horror genre. Here they return with a more mature tale that is part feminist revenge flick and part tribute to body decoration and surgical enhancements of a different kind. While offer gore fans plenty of unsettling scenes of claret soaked body horror action for those who enjoy an emetic popcorn experience.
The first half of the film is most likely to contain the most widespread appeal (if such a thing is possible) as we follow Mary’s plight from hardworking but financially struggling student to underground surgeon. The stripper job is a clear last resort but the money advertised seems too good for a few hours work. Naive to this world Mary takes her CV to the interview which amuses Billy since most strippers only need a CSE in taking their clothes off. After her apparent expert sewing job on the man at the club, a shaken Mary is hounded by Beatress, a hideous looking woman obsessed with being just like Betty Boop, who buys Mary’s skills to work on her friend, fashion designer Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg). Doll fan Ruby is as plastic as Beatress but wants to take the likeness even further by becoming “desexualised” like dolls are. I’m sure you can figure out what that entails.
It seems the drug induce rape of Mary by Dr. Walsh, which was filmed, was an epiphany for Mary as her personality literally changes over night. This is one of the flaws in the script as the ramifications and emotional effects of the rape on Mary should have taken a few days to sink in before the explosion but I digress. With help from Billy and monstrous bouncer Lance (Twan Holiday), Walsh is captured and Mary intends to practice he surgery skills on her attacker in a scene that tips its hat more than once to Takashi Miike’s ultra disturbing Audition.
From hereon in the film shifts from less horror to the niche territory of fetish body enhancements. Quite how it happened we are not sure but Mary has now decided that accommodating people with such fetishist desires is her new vocation in life – the more extreme the better; she throws one guy out for wanting something so “vanilla” as piercings. Genuine enthusiasts are paraded out to show off their individual treatments – from split tongues to horn implants, tribal scars to designer areola. The Soska Sisters themselves make a cameo as German twins looking to furthering the bond between each other in quite an unusual fashion. Meanwhile police are investigating the disappearance of both Grant and Walsh and despite her proclaimed innocence Mary is prime subject for questioning.
By now to much is being crammed into the plot and it runs out of steam by the time the somewhat terse denouement arrives. It becomes a little hard to divine what the Soskas were going for as the “Female Frankenstein” tone of the opening half – with themes of revenge against the sexist doctors and the extreme lengths Beatress and Ruby go to in search of perfect beauty – clashes with the less thrilling rally cry for body fetishists to stand up and be counted. There is certainly less of the sharp humour and black comedy in the second half while Mary’s drastic change in persona needed further explanation. In one scene she is about to crave up a young stripper in the toilets but stops herself in time. Mary was not a serial killer so why do this? Was she supposed to be losing control to her surgical desires? This is never explored either.
What keeps the viewer’s attention the whole way through is leading lady Katharine Isabelle, a twenty four year acting veteran yet still only 31 years-old. She has had a solid, journeyman (or woman) career in both films and TV but never seems to have truly broken out. Engaging from the first shot, Isabelle shows she is more than capable of carrying any film and with her Bette Davis-like facial features she could easily play the legend if a bio-pic arose. She is both physically and emotional believable as girl next door Mary to psycho surgeon Mary, essentially reducing this film to a one woman show.
To their credit the Soskas have delivered a fine looking film, with glorious precision and well framed camerawork and very convincing prosthetics for the surgical scenes. The script is laced with subtle dark humour and interesting observations on the price and definition of beauty in both males and females but the story falters towards the end.
American Mary has its faults but it is certainly one of the more unique body horror films on release. Boasting greater intelligence than your standard male torture porn alternative, the Soska Sisters look set to pave the way for women directors in horror. Scared fellas? You should be!
Behind the Scenes
An American Mary In London
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black