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Guest Review: ‘American Mary’

Viewer Felt Compelled To Discuss Soskas’ Film

Katherine Isabelle stars as the title character in

Credit: Industry Works

Above: Katherine Isabelle stars as the title character in "American Mary."

Nothing gives me more pleasure than showing a film that inspires a discussion in the audience. So I was quite thrilled when an attendee from the "American Mary" screening submitted this review.

San Diego's own Film Geeks kicked off their fright fest at the Digital Gym with an intriguing choice, which I had been reading about at Cinema Junkie: "American Mary," the latest offering directed by the Soska Twins, who would be there in person to promote it. So I couldn't pass up this chance to see it.

The stillness of an illegal operating room after surgery; the stillness of a young woman's face that starkly shows her inner inability to connect with others; the stillness of of an unshaking surgeon's hand who cannot afford to make any mistakes; the stillness of death. "American Mary," a dark comedy slightly more red than black, is the latest film from Jen and Sylvia Soska (or maybe Sylvia and Jen) - the Twisted Twins, who co-write and co-direct this original film that's as often about stillness as it is about blood and erotic desires... or the lack of them. It's an exquisite little gem, a combination of revenge, horror, rogue surgery, and strangely enough, social commentary. It's labeled a cult film, and a horror film, and it plays more like an Italian giallo in a lot of ways, but it is definitely its own kind of film.

Some small spoilers ahead.

Shot on a fairly low budget on locations in Vancouver, its 103 minutes blow through its budgetary expectations visually like a million bucks. It stars Katharine Isabelle, (of "Ginger Snaps" fame) as Mary Mason, a poor but brilliant student at a medical school and hospital with doctors that have more than suturing instructions on their minds. Mary is a beautiful young woman, and somewhat too trusting; this leads to trouble, and not just for her. She keeps her only real human connection, her beloved Nana, at arm's length. Rather than take money from her to make ends meet, she resigns herself to applying for a demeaning job at a local strip club. She meets the club owner, Billy, (Antonio Cupo) who is immediatley attracted to Mary, and after he reads her résumé, suddenly she finds something more. An awkward situation presents itself so Billy offers of five grand, cash on the spot, to perform illegal lifesaving surgery on a man Billy had just beaten nearly to death. Mary has some qualms, but takes the money and uses her skills impressively. Then she goes to her cramped apartment and tries to shower off more than the blood; she's conflicted by the easy money, and her potential as a conventional surgeon.

Not yet a doctor, she finds herself being mistaken for one by a club dancer, Beatress, (Tristan Risk) who has undergone many expensive body modification surgeries to look as much as possible like Betty Boop. She offers a lot more money for body mods on a friend. Here is the main theme of the film - the underground world of extreme body modifications, and the extent some people will go to for self-satisfaction, or satisfaction for others. Curiously, Mary's first body mod operation is for someone who wants to look more asexual for her own self-esteem, strange as it is, and not more sexually attractive. She wants to be a living non-human doll, not a sexual object for her boyfriend, which has its consequences. Mary has tragedies and horrors of her own soon enough, and the people she thought to trust - doctors - become the ones to exploit her vulnerabilty, so she turns to Billy and his hulking bouncer, Lance, (Twan Holiday) for help in getting revenge. Lance is actually the character closest to her inner wish for safety, and Holiday does a fine job as a surprising anchor to reality.

Mary leaves med school without a degree, (what could be left for her there with her new and curious practice?) and becomes the controller in her life, over more than just herself, and her successful underground surgery. But she gradually loses whatever humanity she had left, partly due to her revenge. The Soskas themselves put in an appearance as, yes, twisted twins, all the way from Germany with an extreme plan for each other and their close relationship that they wish to make closer through expensive surgery. Mary obliges them as if it were car repairs and she was just a very special mechanic. It has become that routine for her. Mary becomes quite wealthy, and earns a sort of underground fame on body mod websites as a star surgeon, but she also earns the interest of Police Detective Dolor (John Emmet Tracy) who's looking into missing people. He sees Mary as a victim of the process that brought her to where she was now. A shock ending brings everything to a close, not quite neatly, but the fatalist arc of the story remains true, and it bookends the film neatly with...what else? Sutures.

There's a long history of extreme body mods going back centuries. But films have generally ignored this until recently but this film has its antecedents like all horror films. The aforementioned Italian giallos, and their related horror films, had plenty of similar aspects. The pathos of body mods in a film like "American Mary" really owe as much to Victor Hugo and his maimed hero Gwynplaine, in his novel "The Man Who Laughs," as it does to the Universal horror films, and the Hammer Studio, and more recent horror and revenge films. If something looked different, it was treated with horror, and Hugo's novel had the fictional Comprachicos, (a name coined by Hugo, from Spanish for "child-buyers") who live by mutilating and disfiguring children, who then beg, or become carnival freaks. The 1928 film adaptation "The Man Who Laughs," directed by Paul Leni, starred Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine. As art of a nobleman's revenge, his face is surgically carved by a corrupt Dr. Hardquannone into a permanent, fantastic grin (with make-up that was one of the inspirations for The Joker in the "Batman" comics). It is the film that did the most to introduce and startle audiences with extreme body modification and its erotic aspects, although muted by censors in this Silent Era film. It impressed Roger Ebert, who decided it was "so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film." The biggest difference "American Mary" has with almost all others on this subject is that Hugo wrote his novel as a tragedy, and "American Mary" continues that element in its own novel fashion, but with more of Hugo's humanity than most films about body mods - in this case, the people in it with extreme mods aren't judged, or seen with horror, they're simply presented as no different than anyone else. Perhaps more extreme, but that's not seen as a bad thing. Mary Mason is the anti-Comprachico, the ant-Dr. Hardquannone, and by the end of the film, it's not a freak show, it's downright mundane.

Another aspect that impressed me about this film was the look of it - like it had many times the budget than it actually did, and I think to preserve that stillness, intended or intuited - the photography concentrated on moving the story along, rather than gimmicking it up. No jittery shakycams, no lense flairs, few Dutch angles, just well-placed, intriguingly lit, intelligent shots. Many longer than the usual slice and dice. Kudos to Brian Pearson, the cinematographer, for making the Soskas' vision so lush. Its meager budget also meant location shots - sets cost more. It joins the grand tradition of low-budget films that impress with ad-hoc locations and photography, like 1950's "Gun Crazy," and right up through "The Duellists" (1977), and "El Mariachi" (1992). It looks way more expensive than it could've in lesser hands. In addition, despite having only 15 days to shoot, and being shooed-off locations as time constraints were pushed onto them, the Soskas show remarkable discipline to hammer out a smooth running production, and their cast and crew followed that lead. Most of the film being single-takes by necessity, and the film shows that kind of dedication. The script helped this aspect, it's relentless, always moving, even if sometimes at a tentative, peeking-back-over-the-shoulder-in-fear pace, and it's witty and smart, using it's bloody aspects carefully, to say nothing of it's amazing use of quiet.

Digital Gym here in San Diego, with it's fairly intimate large screen, was the venue for the last stop on the Soska's premier tour of the film in its limited USA release - it deserves a much wider release. It's that good, with an excellent cast, especially Katharine Isabelle who had to carry a lot on her back for this film, and a great script, which is very often dryly funny and clever. Thanks to Beth Accomando and Miguel Rodriguez for bringing this movie here, and it's a great start to the The Film Geeks at The Digital Gym Cinema minifest. After the Saturday showing here, both Soskas had an excellent Q & A session, where they touched on their influences, and upbringing as self-described 'two little goth girls,' and their interest in horror films from an early age. They were funny, intelligent, and above all enthusiastic about film and film-goers. An enjoyable experience; again, what an excellent film, and I hope to see more like it from the Soskas.

--Vanwall Green lives and writes in San Diego, and is interested in all sorts of motion pictures and the people who make them, with a special gleam in his eye for foreign films and the little-seen and obscure, from the Silent Era to today's broad spectrum of genres.

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