Director(s): Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska
Writer(s): Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska
Cast: Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, David Lovgren, Paula Lindberg

Vancouver filmmaking team Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska exploded onto the genre film scene with a low budget, but commendably crafted film called Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009). The sisters—identical twins, in fact—overcame budget constraints to deliver a crowd-pleasing film that, although well short of perfection, succeeded on the commitment of its directors in delivering a witty and joyfully violent film. The film world embraced the debut, and IFC Films picked it up for distribution. What the sisters didn’t anticipate was the huge cult following that amassed on the heels of its success.

Seeking to prove that success was no fluke, the “Twisted Twins” (as they’re affectionately known to fans) followed their debut with their second feature American Mary (2012), a merciless take on the rape and revenge exploitation subgenre. Though far from a luxurious shoot, the duo did have better resources at their disposal, and seemed poised to solidify the perception that they were here to stay. The only apparent obstacle was fulfilling the expectations of an exponentially growing fan base, one that felt kinship with the charismatic sisters.

American Mary, is the story of Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle), a promising young medical student who is struggling financially, barely afloat under the weight of the typical pressures of medical school. In a moment of desperation, she applies for a job at a strip club, setting her on an unanticipated course when she ends up performing emergency surgery at the job interview. Realizing the lucrative possibilities, she takes on several illegal surgical odd jobs to pay the bills. Disenfranchised by the medical community, and victimized in a traumatic rape experience, she soon leaves the mainstream medical world behind. The film chronicles her trek into the underground world of extreme body modification, a place where she excels in fulfilling the body image fantasies of an eccentric clientele.

The Soskas spent considerable time casting in order to find a perfect “Mary” to drive their vehicle. Their selection of Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) as the lead is an inspired choice. She goes beyond the call of duty in her embodiment of the cold and calculating, though fleetingly vulnerable Mary. As the story’s endearing anti-hero, the film hinges on her performance, and the role takes the young woman to some very dark places. Consider a very troubling, though admirably restrained rape scene about a third of the way into the film: Isabelle is able to convey a huge range of emotion, from paralyzed terror to demoralized anguish, with subtle changes in the expression of her eyes.

Mary’s move to the world of illicit surgery and body modification has been classified in reviews as a “descent.” This is not necessarily the case, for, as the young woman takes on more unusual clients, she develops an affinity for the odd assortment of characters like Betty Boop wannabe Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk), or Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg), a woman who wants all traces of her sexuality removed from her body. Initially, Mary is judgmental, even repulsed, by these characters. However, once she gets to know them as people, she grows to care about them. The same empathy might be achieved by viewers who look down their noses at members of the body modification subculture. This facet is handled with utmost respect by the filmmakers. In fact, the Soskas themselves have a cameo as a pair of twins who hire Mary for their own twisted alteration.

American Mary benefits by what one might call a “woman’s touch.” This character-driven piece fills a need for transgressive films about women that are actually made by women. The protagonist’s perspective in the male-dominated world of surgery—likely tempered by the filmmakers’ own experience in a similarly male-dominated field of filmmaking—offers a unique examination of those parallels, and benefits from the insight of women in its creation and interpretation. One might look to a pivotal party scene in which the male elite of the surgical community take advantage of drugged female attendees. It’s one of the most disturbing and infuriating scenes in the film. The screenplay, also written by the Soskas, is peppered with moments like this that one might imagine are inspired by their real life observations.

Arguably, the revenge aspect of the story happens too abruptly. It’s an absolutely brilliant moment of horror. Unfortunately, there is very little buildup to bridge the sequences except for an obviously angry Mary throwing some books onto the floor in fury. One can’t help but feel this is a missed opportunity for the Soskas to insert a transformative moment with a little more heft and complexity. Having Mary wallow in self-pity would certainly not be the answer, but what’s missing is something of the power of Camille Keaton’s character putting herself back together after her horrifying rape in I Spit on Your Grave (1978). That film’s quietly reflective moments are powerful, and account for one of the ingredients sorely missing in American Mary.

Despite offering a glimpse into the world of exacting surgery, American Mary isn’t precision perfect. The film’s lack of a refined three-act structure gives it a meandering quality. Some critics have also related this lack of focus to the character of Mary—at first goal-oriented—then mostly interested in vaguely-defined revenge and animal survival.

Fortunately, the story does remain interesting, if not focused. The Soskas explore the consequences for Mary’s actions when she turns to violence to solve a number of problems. The line between hero and villain is blurred, and that’s where Mary’s true descent occurs. By the film’s end, Mary has serious questions about her sanity as destruction consumes her life.

Flaws notwithstanding, American Mary is a bold statement from the Soskas. It’s masterfully shot by cinematographer Brian Pearson, remarkably acted—especially by Isabelle and Risk—and boasts fantastic practical makeup effects by MasterFX. The film contains a plethora of subtext to digest and discuss, and its central themes—control, body image, sexuality, gender politics, and empowerment—are wonderful to explore within the atmosphere of grotesque imagery. Although the film lapses at points, the journey shows a confident and intelligent filmmaking team, unafraid to make filmgoers squirm at the delivery of their message. Ultimately, American Mary is fiendishly clever, brutal, and a step forward for the Twisted Twins.

~ by Chris Hallock