For a movie lover, there are few things greater than going into a movie expecting to dislike it, but then being completely enthralled with it. Such is the case for me with the Soska sisters’ American Mary, starring Katherine Isabelle.
Why didn’t I expect to like it? Well, it’s the sophomore effort from the relatively unknown Jen and Sylvia Soska, also known as the Twisted Twins, but more importantly it focuses on surgical-based body-horror, which is something of a sensitive area for me as a former cancer patient with far too much experience on an operating table. As a comparison, The Human Centipede is still a memory I’m trying to forget, thoughts of which I attempt to excise from my mind as quickly as possible, as though I may somehow catch whatever disease it may be that Tom Six’s brain happens to have. So a modern-day Frankenstein tale centered on the world of extreme body-modification is somewhat outside of my wheelhouse, even as a devout horror fan.
But that’s what American Mary is, and it’s exactly what works about it. The story revolves around Isabelle’s Mary Mason, a med school student well on her way to being a surgeon. Like so many American college students, Mary is deeply in debt. Her job as a waitress is unreliable income at best, and her phone is perpetually in danger of being shut off. Desperate for an end to her financial problems, Mary applies for a job as a stripper. Fate does its thing, and the strip club owner requires her surgical skills for an exceptional circumstance that indirectly leads her into the extreme body-modification community. It’s here that the movie finds its unique perspective as we meet characters like Tristan Risk’s Beatess, a stripper who’s been surgically altered to look like Betty Boop, and a number of other customers looking for tounge-splittings and voluntary amputations. Horrifying as these profound transformations may be to some viewers, the true horror only begins when Mary is sexually assaulted by one of her professors.
Sexual assault in movies can be tricky. At times it’s gratuitous, or simply there to motivate a male protagonist, such as in 2002’s Irreversable. In ‘Mary’ it’s neither, and though it does serve to move the plot down the dark corridors of its second and third acts, the Soska sisters portray it as frankly and realistically as one would expect from two women known to be proponents of women’s rights and gender-quality.
As unbelievably interesting as watching all of this unfold is, it might not have been half-so if Katherine Isabelle wasn’t absolutely killing it as Mary. She deftly transitions from a wide-eyed med student to a cold and questionably stable rage-driven underground surgeon with what appears to be great ease and even manages to inject some humor into the macabre proceedings. (Her reaction to a customer who comes into her workshop looking for some simple piercings is priceless) Between this and her recent role as Margot Verger on NBC’s ‘Hannibal,’ you have to wonder and hope that Isabelle in on the precipice of exploding in the way that she should have after ‘Ginger Snaps’ way back in 2000. If that’s the case, better late than never.
The Soska sisters are just as capable, allowing the movie to unfold at a natural pace. It never feels rushed, but also never drags. Honestly, as sophomore efforts go, it’s incredibly impressive. They’ve certainly got one up on Eli Roth, which makes you wonder why he’s got such a name and the Soskas are still relatively unknown. Admittedly, as far as subject matter goes, American Mary is much, much farther outside the mainstream than anything Roth has done, but an ideal world that would be a plus, not a detriment.
Ultimately the most interesting thing about ‘Mary,’ and what really makes it a cut above, is that it’s a Frankenstein movie where there are no clear doctor or monster archetypes. Mary and her teachers are both mad creators and monsters in their own rights. In this way, ‘Mary’ follows in the tradition of so many other monster movies in that characters that are far outside the norm, like Beatress, or the sisters portrayed by the Soska twins themselves, are the most likeable and harmless, while the people who mainstream society wouldn’t blink twice at are often the most dangerous and reprehensible. This is where the movie really shines, exploring the differences between people with a unique outward appearance and the true monsters created or enabled by society.
Here’s hoping the Soskas get around to giving us some more monsters equally as unique and fascinating as the good Dr. Mason really soon.
American Mary is rated R and available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix.