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Rants and Raves: The Soskas, Yes They Cannes!

Katharine Isabelle in the Soskas' "American Mary" that just screened at the Cannes Market.
Twisted Twins Productions
Katharine Isabelle in the Soskas' "American Mary" that just screened at the Cannes Market.

Twisted Twins Invade France With 'American Mary'

The Cannes Film Festival kicked off last night and while you could find celebrities from all over the globe on the red carpet, the one thing you couldn't find was a women director in competition for the Palm D'Or. The Internet was in an uproar over the fact that female directors have been overlooked in almost all of the Festival's 65 years. But outside the main event, at the Cannes market, Canadian twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska are doing their best to prove that women are not only making films but working in the male dominated horror genre.

I have been following Twisted Twins Jen and Sylvia Soska since their debut film "Dead Hooker in a Trunk" played at the 2010 Horrible Imaginings in San Diego. Their new film, "American Mary" had its world premiere at the Cannes Market just a few hours ago.

Kudos to Miguel Rodriguez of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival for finding the micro-budgeted "Dead Hooker in a Trunk" for his San Diego horror film festival. The film suffered from some unevenness but it was so audaciously over the top and fun that it made you sit up and take note. The Soskas' first film was an obvious homage to grindhouse films but when they teased their second film, "American Mary," with this video they showed that they were upping the ante and weren't going to be a one trick pony.


Here's the teaser with Sylvia Soska as the title character. The video was made before the film was cast or shot and was designed to help get financial backing.

American Mary - Teaser Trailer

It worked and the film was funded, cast, and shot but not edited in time to make the deadline to submit to the Cannes Film Festival this year. Too bad. The line up could have used the wickedly talented twin sisters not just because the Festival needed some gender diversity but also because the Soskas most certainly would have shaken things up. So instead the Soskas are screening "American Mary" tonight at the Cannes market, where films in search of a distributor often go with the hopes of being bought.

The filmmaking twins have been tight lipped about the precise content of their new film-- releasing just enough to tease us with anticipation -- but a photo released earlier this week finally lets the veil slip. The image shows Mary Mason (played by "Ginger Snaps'" Katharine Isabelle) and a pair of women with corset-like laces surgically implanted in their backs. The subject the Twisted Twins delve into can no longer be denied -- it is body modification or what the Soskas will only call "underground surgeries."

Co-writer-director Sylvia Soska says this of the story: "The movie follows a medical student Mary Mason as she becomes increasingly broke and disenchanted with the medical profession and surgeons she once admired, and the allure of easy money and notoriety takes her into the messy world of underground surgeries that leave more marks on Mary than her so called freakish clientele."

You can understand why the filmmakers didn't want to say too much too soon. It's a decidedly original topic.

Pinhead led the Cenobites in Clive Barker's "Hellraiser," a kind of variation on body modification.
New World
Pinhead led the Cenobites in Clive Barker's "Hellraiser," a kind of variation on body modification.

"The last person that almost did that was Clive Barker," says Sylvia Soska, "he was hanging around in that scene a lot, and he based 'Hellraiser' on it but instead of literally doing these people, he did Cenobites, which is a hell version and more forgivable because you can have this kind of world of fantasy. I remember trying to pitch 'American Mary,' and we got passed on a lot, my goodness."

That's probably because Hollywood doesn't know what to do with anything original, and it definitely doesn't know what to do with real horror, It prefers remakes and jokey horror. But the Soskas know real horror -- they know what it means to embrace the darkness and be seduced by what scares you most. They also understand why we need horror.

"Horror is a really vital part of life," says Jen Soska, "Horror is kind of like when you get a kid an animal so they have an early experience with dealing with death because if you lose your cat of course it's really upsetting and sad but it's a lot better to have lost a cat or a goldfish before having to deal with say the death of a parent. In real life if you get attacked, if you're raped, if you have some horrible situation happen to you or to someone close to you, you don't have the convenience of or the freedom of sitting there and watching it from a different perspective. You're in that horrific scene. I hate it when people try to put censorship on scenes that are very upsetting like that because in reality you can't skip to the next day, you can't pan over to the curtains. I think it's a very safe way for people to examine the darker side of human nature."

Sylvia adds, "I find a lot of times when people make anything in the horror genre they almost look at it like they are making pornography because they think as long as they have the money shots, and somebody getting killed, and you have some tits and you have funny one liners here and there, then they don't really feel they have to put more of an effort into it. A lot of times I find blood and really gory prosthetics are used in lieu of having a story, in lieu of having something happen there because it gives you a certain visceral feeling when you see these kinds of images and there's not much thought put into the rest of it."

When you first meet the Soskas, it's easy to be distracted by their appearance. They make a striking pair. looking like the daughters of Morticia Gomez. You might be fooled into thinking that these girls are using their looks and the novelty of being twin sisters to get ahead. But a few minutes talking with them proves that these ladies are smart and full on horror geeks.

When Jen and Sylvia were little girls they weren't playing with Barbies they were playing with spiders or huddled in the horror section of their video store.

"They had this wonderful display of all these horror movies," Sylvia recalls of her local video store in Canada, "and it was like a little haunted house we would go around looking at the back of boxes for the bloodiest things with the goriest messes, and we'd beg our mom who never, never let us watch one until 'Poltergeist."

And that, says Sylvia Soska, changed her life because to alleviate her fears after seeing the film her mother explained all the movie magic.

"She told me that everything I saw was systematically made by very talented artists with the intention of scaring me and I was like wait a minute? These people's job is scaring people for a fucking living? And that was it! We were hopelessly hooked."

Their geeky passion for horror helped them get Todd Masters of Masters FX to do the make up and prosthetics for "American Mary." They met him by trying to win a prize from a horror trivia contest his company was running. Then they pitched him their script.

"Not only was the subject matter original," says Masters, "but I kind of felt like I was back in the 70s, maybe with a sixteen millimeter in New York City trying to shoot a version of 'Mean Streets." Hollywood has a tendency of falling into the same formula [but] the Soskas didn't do that. They kind of came out of nowhere and loved movies, they are kind of the female Quentin Tarantino story. They were always hanging out in video stores. They were kind of more from the fan side of it and the script really read like it was something that they wanted to see of quality. The Soskas are trying to do it on an independent level that really feels like that 70s style of breakneck filmmaking where it was a little bit more about the art and less about the first weekend box office."

The Soskas weren't thinking box office when they created "American Mary." They were thinking of what could make for an original horror film.

"A lot of people don't know about this certain world of surgery," says Sylvia Soska, "and all of this is very legitimate and we had a flesh artist come in who specializes in doing these surgeries. It was amazing to actually see this realism brought into the film."

Director Todd Browning on the set of "Freaks."
Director Todd Browning on the set of "Freaks."

To heighten that realism, the Soskas take their cue from Todd Browning and his 1932 film "Freaks" in which he mixed actors with real side show performers some of whom had physical deformities. Co-writer-director Jen Soska says "Freaks" is something they talked about on the set because "American Mary" also employs a mix of real people -- in this case with surgical changes -- mixed in with actors using prosthetics.

"You are never going to be 100% sure when you are looking at a prosthetic in this film or if you are looking at somebody that actually has something physically changed about them."

The ability to blur that line between reality and make up effects is part of what appealed to Sylvia about doing a film involving medical horror.

"It's always been a dream to do a prosthetic movie and with a lot of interesting gore, not the kind of stuff that you see like people getting stabbed and cut all the time but medical mutilation, now that you can really have some fun with. There was this part where we have this incision where we are cutting through flesh and you actually see the muscle, you see the blood spray, you see everything."

That's where their own "flesh artist" came in. Masters came up with effects that had to look real but also had to deliver on the gore when needed. He says the Soskas appreciate his particular brand of artistry and know how to measure out the gore to effectively build tension.

"They were really smart about how and when they reveal blood and blood gags. It was really interesting to watch, you know blood gags and effects and things like this are almost like punches in a boxing fight and you want to play them at a specific time to get most impact, and this was not something that I had to tell them about."

Sylvia Soska admits that the film is violent and sometimes hard to watch but it's not torture porn like "Saw."

"Yes it's violent in some parts but there are some parts that are really scary where we are not bashing anyone over the head, we're just building tension in these horrible situations that you really wouldn't want to be in but we make it situations that are very familiar to you so even though this is a fantastical world about underground operations and what not, it's also something like 'I've been there.'"

So what the Soskas do is not just about grossing out viewers or one upping the competition. Instead, they provide more thoughtful horror as they explore a subculture that many may find horrific. Jen Soska suggests that maybe the more commonplace plastic surgeries are what's truly freakish.

"If someone gets breast implants or a face lift sure you can say it's for themselves and it's for their self esteem but it's also building into what society accepts as a form of beauty. They are not doing it just because it's something they purely enjoy, they are doing it because they are fitting into what everyone wants you to look like fucking Barbie."

Of those with body modifications, Masters says, "This is a choice they had made and as much as people make choices of doing tattoos on their bodies or fixing their noses or whatever we do -- it's their own personal choice and in a way that's actually a big theme in the movie. We are all free to do whatever we want to our bodies, we now have technology that allows us to do some pretty amazing things."

And the technology for the filmmakers to do some pretty amazing things as well if used properly says Sylvia Soska.

"For us the prosthetics and the effects and even the special character actors that had come out specifically for this film, they are part of the story, they were written into actually be part of the storytelling elements to not have them there would be kind of ridiculous."

The Canadian twins appreciate the horror genre for its ability to examine the darker side of human nature. But they also know that they are going to be asked what's a nice girl like you doing in the horror business or why someone should put themselves through the grinder of an intense horror film.

"The worst thing that can happen is someone watches your films and they have nothing to say about it," says Jen Soska.

As "American Mary" screened tonight in France you can be sure that people will be having plenty to say about the Soskas as they push the audience, push expectation about women filmmaker, and just generally push the envelope for horror.

Masters notes, "Because they're women, they seem to stick out of a male dominated genre a lot of people think that blood and gore is for the boys and so these are kind of like girls that really like hanging with the boys but play their way."

And it's the "their way" that makes their films so fresh, original, and intoxicating.

"I don't think art is real art unless it has a strong emotional trigger for people," says Sylvia Soska, "With 'American Mary' I know there are going to be a lot people that are not going to like the film but there are going to be a lot of people that it will also really speak to and those are the people we are making it for."

Suggested horror viewing: Clive Barker's "Hellraiser" and "Nightbreed;" Guillermo Del Toro's "Cronos;" Todd Browning's "Freaks;" James Whale's "Frankenstein"