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Preview: 'American Mary'

Filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska make a cameo appearance in their latest film, "American Mary," which kicks off a new late night film program at the Digital Gym Cinema.
Industry Works
Filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska make a cameo appearance in their latest film, "American Mary," which kicks off a new late night film program at the Digital Gym Cinema.

New Late Night Film Series Kicks Off Friday At The Digital Gym

A new late-night film series kicks off this Friday at the Digital Gym’s micro cinema. It’s being presented by a group of programmers from Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, Pac-Arts and FilmOut, and with myself as organizer. We call ourselves the Film Geeks and everyone is volunteering their time. The first film is “American Mary,” and represents our dedication to genre films that push the envelope.

Late-Night Film Series Kicks Off With 'American Mary'
KPBS Morning Edition's Deb Welsh talks with KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando, who is one of the organizers of the film series.

Sometimes you have to put up or shut up. As a film critic, I talk a lot about film and recommend what you should see and what you need to stay away from. But sometimes talk is not enough. I see being a film critic as being a film activist, my goal is to get good films seen. That’s one of the things I respected about the late Roger Ebert, he ran a film festival to showcase films that he felt were being overlooked. So that’s what the Film Geeks are trying to do and we’re trying to do this for a specific reason. We are all fans of genre and extreme filmmaking and we want to use the new micro cinema at the Digital Gym to cultivate an audience for genre filmmaking and for films that challenge or surprise viewers.

I love horror, I love films that take you someplace dark, and I love the fact that this film was made by twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska. Women in horror are a rare thing and I just felt compelled to support it. I admire women who don’t let the industry force them into a box making chick flicks and I admire women who don’t whine about the obstacles to breaking into a boys club like horror. The Soskas realize that if you make a kick-ass film, people will take notice. Because their film doesn’t have a big theatrical distribution, I realized that if I didn’t pay for the film to come to San Diego, it would never play on a big screen here, and as a horror fan, I couldn’t let that happen. So I donated the money for it to screen this Friday and Saturday.

Mary (Katherine Isabelle) performing some non-elective surgery in "American Mary."
Industry Works
Mary (Katherine Isabelle) performing some non-elective surgery in "American Mary."

"American Mary" is the twisted twins' follow up to "Dead Hooker in A Trunk," and the two films couldn't be more different. "Dead Hooker" was all DIY raw energy and grindhouse grit. "Mary" is all about an elegant visual style and a slow racheting up of tension. It's about a med student named Mary Mason (the exquisite and fittingly sardonic Katherine Isabelle) who runs into financial difficulties and gets pulled into the world of underground surgery and body modification. Her clients ask her to split their tongues or surgically attach horns to the foreheads. One client wants to look like doll but can't find a plastic surgeon willing to snip and stitch to her specifications. Let her explain.

RUBY: No one looks at dolls in a sexual manner, do you know why?

MARY: I don't know why, I guess because they don't have all their parts.

RUBY: Exactly. You understand perfectly.
A lot of people might look at these characters as freaks, but Soskas embrace these characters (much like Todd Browning did with his characters in "Freaks"). They also challenge ideas about beauty and sexuality. Here’s how Jen Soska put it.

"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."

'American Mary' Trailer

It's scary how well "American Mary" is made. But the real horror in the film comes in some unexpected places. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that the story does turn into a revenge film and part of what’s scary is the darkness Mary finds inside herself. That’s what makes the Soskas so good. They do not go for the knee-jerk scare of something jumping out of the dark or for gross-out gore. They deliver carefully calibrated horror that looks to the darkness that lies within each of us. And they are really smart about how they use gore effects; they know when to show blood and when to leave it to our imaginations. They prove that all horror needs is a woman’s touch to refresh it.

The Soskas will have a special video introduction for the film on Friday night at 10 p.m. They will be in town on Saturday for a Q&A following the 10 p.m. screening. The second film in the series will be "Gut," with filmmaker Elias offering a mini-workshop on making and distributing an independent film after the two screenings of his film on June 14 and 15.

Tickets for both films are available here. Ticket price include free dessert and drinks at the 9:30 p.m. reception for the film.

You can listen to my NPR story here.