– “She’s an artist.” –
Following on from the Grindhouse-inspired Dead Hooker in a Trunk, Jen and Sylvia Soska (Twisted Twins Productions)’s American Mary rejects the tired cliches of “feminist horror”, and offers up something genuinely original. In a subgenre deeply mired in systematic rape-revenge character arcs, the twins have done more than just re-purpose categorical expectations – they’ve made them relevant.
Something that’s become increasingly evident in modern horror is the lack of thematically-established exposition and identification; this is where American Mary differs. The film forgoes the use of standardised shock tactics in favour of showing tactful restraint. The intimacy with which issues of body horror are handled is the most refreshing part of this film, allowing for a much richer experience than is seen in the more typical aspects of torture porn. In short, where others fail to move beyond novelty, American Mary lingers on.
Opening to the creation of Frankenstein’s turkey, American Mary immediately sets the tone for a thoroughly unique brand of body horror. The ordinary and familiar is carefully manipulated under the Soskas’ deviant eye of re-evaluation, thematically elucidating a continual awareness of the uncanny. This is nihilist horror; anything and everything will provoke – when all is unnatural, nothing is.
Written by the Soskas during their effort to sell Dead Hooker in a Trunk, American Mary mirrors part of their prior experiences with the industry – easily found in the film’s darkly satirical subject matter. The film itself is a kind of sleekly put together genre-mod of its own. With equal parts body horror, rape-revenge and forlorn love story, American Mary doesn’t typically fall into any broadly recognisable subcategories, nor does it try to; it may have been stitched together from used parts, but you can barely detect the seams.
The story begins with impoverished anti-heroine Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle), as she struggles to pay her way through medical school. Following an extension on her payments, Mary seeks employment at a local strip-club. The owner, impressed by Mary’s medical background, offers her a one-off payment if she might operate on an injured “colleague” he has in the basement. Despite Mary’s accomplishments both in and out of her role as a surgical intern, her male superiors at the school consistently test and berate her in what would seem a likely exaggeration of the “hardened professor” archetype.
Following a particularly disillusioning event with one of her prior teachers, Mary “changes specialties” and begins her career as an unregistered plastic surgeon under the name ‘Bloody Mary’. Bloody Mary’s underground practice quickly finds success, resulting in worldwide recognition throughout the extreme body modification (EBM) community via her website. Aided by her one-time employer’s criminal connections, Mary soon finds that her taste for performing “physical augmentation” goes beyond mere monetary satisfaction.
Katherine Isabelle’s portrayal of the infamous “Bloody Mary” is as distinguished and innovative as her luridly altered counterpart. Sardonically deadpan, and quirky without being cute, Isabelle’s suitably mature execution of such a diversely emotive role is directly indicative of how much personal involvement is felt throughout the film’s extensively-budgeted production.
Expense notwithstanding, American Mary‘s formal elements exude the quality and craftsmanship of a much larger production. Featuring practical effects and appearances from real members of the EBM community, the film’s authenticity is notably visible at every turn – be it tongue bifurcation, nipple redesign or, in the case of the Soskas’ own provocatively entertaining cameo, voluntary amputation – any indication of artifice remains rightly absent from Mary’s macabre diegesis.
Aside from American Mary‘s already numerous merits, the paradoxically engrossing motley of Brian Pearson’s elegant cinematography consistently permeates the screen. Slow, languid movements are in perfect contrast with Mary‘s exploitative and visceral subject matter. Composer Peter Allan works in skillful synchronicity with Pearson’s muted intonations, resulting in an extremely accomplished and immersive space, upon which the Soskas emblazon their antithetically reticent impressions of a subculture known for its innate shock value.
Consequently, American Mary occupies an innate sense of intimacy, that intuitively renegotiates the role of subculture within a scheme that customarily elicits systems of difference in an effort to evoke feeling. The pervasive use of tactical alienation that runs throughout the morbidly orthodox heraldry of horror surgeons has been freely altered by the Soskas’ tactful sensitivity. Lastly, the Twisted Twins have initiated a much-desired re-calibration of the ostensibly overworked philosophies of conventional horror, once again demonstrating the conducive influence of cult cinema.