Readers of Anythinghorror.com know that Scott and I have been supportive of the Soska Sisters, ahead of many others in the field. Their debut film DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK (read Scott’s review here) was an astounding first effort, made on a shoestring budget, but still, could their second movie, AMERICAN MARY, match the potential they showed with the first? Many haven’t.
Thankfully, MARY proves that DEAD HOOKER wasn’t just a one-off for Jen and Sylvia.
The title character is Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle, GINGER SNAPS), a Seattle medical student living alone, her only seeming relative her grandmother with whom she has to hide her dire financial problems. Her teacher Dr Grant (David Londgren, COOL RUNNINGS) recognises her talents, but isn’t prepared to cur her any slack. Desperate for cash, she answers an ad at a strip club, and such is her naiveté that she brings along her resume, a fact which amuses the club’s sleazy manager Billy (Antonio Cupo), though he thinks she’s attractive and fit enough for the work in mind. But he’s barely starting to audition her when he’s called away on an emergency – and soon offering her five thousand dollars to use her nascent surgical skills in patching up one of his men, no questions asked. Given that she was prepared to offer ‘massages’ for much less, Mary agrees – and it’s also a chance to practice her cutting and stitching on something other than supermarket chickens.
Soon after, she is approached by Beatrice (Tristan Risk, DARKEST HOUR), a prostitute who has fulfilled her dream of looking like Betty Boop via cosmetic surgery. She makes herself a nuisance, finally cornering Mary and, having heard of her skills on behalf of Billy, offers her money for another job: extreme cosmetic surgery on a friend (and if a double mastectomy and a stitching up of female genitalia to ‘desexualise’ a woman isn’t classed as extreme, then I’m Michael Jackson). Mary resists, but when her regular job ends completely, the call of the scalpel is unignorable.
Soon she’s rolling in the money, learning about the world of body modification. But she still longs to be a regular surgeon, and during her residency she is invited to the home of Dr Walsh (Clay St Thomas, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE) for a party with other surgeons. However, on her arrival she is drugged and raped by Dr Grant (the implication is that, having been seen in new clothes and conversing with Beatrice, Mary must be a prostitute as well, and therefore ‘a legitimate target’, and I really wish so many assholes in the real world didn’t agree with such an assessment). Upon waking up the next morning and discovering what had happened to her, she drops out of medical school and turns herself full-time towards illegal surgery, getting involved again with Billy and Beatrice and using her skills to exact a suitable revenge, all the while feeling her grip on reality erode.
I don’t know how much AMERICAN MARY cost. I’m expecting not much (that’s not meant as an insult, by the way). But it looks like a big budget movie in every single respect. It’s been compared to David Cronenberg’s “body horror”-themed movies (especially given the shared Canadian heritage of Cronenberg and the Soskas), and I can mostly concur, but I would lean away from the likes of THE FLY and THE BROOD and more towards CRASH and DEAD RINGERS, with psychological destruction playing an equal role with physical destruction. Or rather, modification (as the Chinese used to say, “Nothing ever ends, it merely becomes something else”). The people who come to Mary (or “Bloody Mary” as they soon call her) for alteration (including a cameo from the Soska Sisters themselves) may seem alien and perverted to the average viewer, especially when details about what they’re looking to get done (including tongues being forked, teeth sharpened, subdermal implants, amputations) are revealed. But to Mary, they prove to be more honest and approachable than the arrogant, egotistical male doctors who ultimately betray her and cast aside her original ambitions. In her own way, she modifies herself, though the direction she takes is not necessarily healthy.
There is a definite neo-noir feel to AMERICAN MARY: a dark, seedy world of characters in shades of grey. Billy, for instance, starts out seemingly as a sleazeball minor character but proves to have strength and sympathy as his attraction and affection for Mary grows, as does his enforcer Lance (Twan Holliday, STAN HELSING), who has a poignant and revealing scene where he shows his support for Mary’s skills and empowerment. There is also a tragic sense of inevitability, where life for these people could be so much better, if only they could speak up and change the course their lives are taking.
And fortunately the Soskas recruited performers equal to the script, and through them I felt for the principal characters more than I have for those in other movies for quite a while. Katherine Isabelle gives a truly amazing performance, full of depth and subtlety. There are scenes where she says nothing and offers no facial expressions, but her eyes speak volumes. The woman’s got chops! Antonio Cupo, who plays Billy, also excels, and makes what could have been a one-dimensional gangland thug into something much more.
But what about the horror? It’s there, though more from implication and explicitness. There’s blood aplenty spilt, and scenes of surgery, though the Soskas don’t linger, at least not too closely (but when we do, the impact is all the more effective for it). And the soundtrack is eclectic, from Schubert and Bach to Rod Stewart to some hardcore numbers I want to find later on Spotify…
The film isn’t perfect. At nearly 105 minutes, it loses its pace towards the end, and the ending itself is for me abrupt disappointing – not that it was unrealistic, more out of left field, and with all the plot threads to take, it certainly wasn’t one I would have taken.
But then I’m not a filmmaker. And the Soska Sisters definitely are. They’ve crafted a superior movie that could find its way on my Top Ten Best Horror movies of 2013. The movie is available on DVD in the UK with a behind-the-scenes documentary with cast and crew and a feature titled An American Mary in London, detailing the world premier at the Film4 Frightfest in August 2012, but as yet I can find no details of a North American release. What the hey, Soskas?
Director: The Soska Sisters (also writers)
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 6 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien. The D is silent.