I’ve been covering horror movies for a while now, and over the years I’ve noticed a lot of very interesting genre films about women — that are also written and directed by men. That’s meant as a compliment. Indie filmmakers like Paul Solet (Grace), Mitchell Lichtenstein (Teeth), and Lucky McKee (May, The Woman) are clearly and admirably fascinated by females who exist in an environment of dark fiction, but let’s be frank here: there should be more horror films about women — that are also written and directed by women. The dark and disturbing, yet oddly accessible American Mary looks like a firm step in the right direction. Written and directed by a pair of twin sisters from Vancouver, American Mary is easily one of the most fascinating female-themed horror stories of the past few years, and it should absolutely serve to open a few more doors for the audacious and plainly talented Jen and Sylvia Soska.
American Mary is, as it title suggests, more of a character study than a plot-driven horror story, but here’s the gist: Mary Mason is a brilliant young medical student who could easily become an amazing surgeon, except she has major financial problems, plus she seems pretty good at infuriating one of her most demanding professors. In an effort to earn some quick cash, the very pretty Ms. Mason applies for a job at a local strip joint, but when something horrific happens, she is enlisted for her surgical skills. And just like that, Mary Mason has a lucrative new side-job: she can perform amazing (illegal) surgical procedures for those “undesirables” who cannot visit a traditional (legal) doctor.
Before long Mary is performing elaborate surgeries for the underground “body modification” crowd, including a woman who wants to look exactly like Betty Boop, and another one who wants to look like a Barbie doll… in every way imaginable. But just as Mary’s secret career is taking off, her professional studies are suffering. A chance invitation to a party with her instructors leads to a brutal assault, and that’s when American Mary turns from a darkly compelling story of a strong woman dealing with very angry men and very strange women into a horror / revenge story that’s a lot more challenging and insightful than one might logically expect from a pair of first-time filmmakers. (Actually the Soska girls did a micro-budget flick called Dead Hooker in a Trunk, which barely qualifies as a movie, in my cranky opinion. The improvements between that film and this one, in virtually every important department of filmmaking, is practically staggering.)
Aside from delivering a fascinating anti-heroine who is smart, sexy, tragic, and powerful at the same time (more on Mary in a minute), the Soska twins accomplish some truly impressive stuff here: the “body mod” stuff, which is logically upsetting to most people, is handled very well. It’s just “icky” enough to keep us off-balance, but it also displays some actual respect for those who wish to stamp and skewer their flesh as they see fit. The look of the film is frequently quite lovely, which serves as an essential balance when the story gets particularly grim or gruesome — which it does. Even when it’s being sleazy, American Mary is a very well-shot, well-cut indie flick, and it’s clear that the directors want to push the “nasty stuff” to a point, without going overboard. American Mary displays restraint at moments when other films would linger on the viscera, but then it tosses you an unexpected little shock, just to make sure you’re still on board.
The best thing about this great little character piece is, of course, the main character. Played with reckless abandon by Katharine Isabelle, Mary Mason is an endlessly fascinating character. Yes, she’s gorgeous to look at with her lovely face and sinful curves, but the actress has no problem making us believe that Mary is also brilliant, resourceful, compassionate, melancholy, desperate. Ms. Isabelle is great from the first scene, and the darker American Mary gets, the more powerful her performance becomes. Even if you hate the film, which is certainly possible given its tone and subject matter, there’s little denying that the lead performance is something pretty special. And it’s not just because she’s pretty, honest.
So the lead steals the movie, but there’s also fine work from Tristan Risk as Beatress, a woman living a lifetime of Betty Boop impersonation, Antonio Cupo as the strip club owner who logically starts to feel affection (or something like it) for Mary, and the hulking Twan Holliday as a bodyguard who assists “Bloody Mary” as she becomes an underground sensation among the body-mod aficionados. My only gripe involves a slightly pointless subplot that leads to a few empty “dream” sequences, but those only pop up a few times, and are a small price to pay in the face of one of the strangest, slyest, and most confident “female-centric” horror flicks in quite some time.