Fantastic Fest ’12: American Mary – Review


Body mod horror skimps on gore, impresses with dark humor

American Mary is a horror movie made for a very specific type of horror fan. Chances are this horror fan has at least a couple of piercings and/or tattoos. Their closet is full of black t-shirts and their MP3 player features music by singers who may or may not have throat cancer. This horror fan likes their movies bloody, their music loud and their beer cheap. That said, American Mary plays well regardless of whether you are or are not this stereotypical image of the horror addict as a stoned, basement-dwelling metal head. Through a frequently funny script, a great performance by Katharine Isabelle and some slick stylistic choices from directors Jen and Sylvia Soska (real life twins), American Mary rises above its face-value limitations and becomes something truly enjoyable.

Isabelle stars as Mary Mason, a medical student strapped for cash and harassed by her demanding professor. Looking to ease her financial burden, Mary visits a local strip club hoping to find work. The work she ends up finding wasn’t quite what she expected, though. The club owner, in need of some emergency medical support for a man he was in the process of torturing, hires Mary for her surgical training. Shaken by her experience, but flush with cash for the first time, Mary hopes she can move on from this traumatic experience. Unfortunately, word of Mary’s underground surgery session has spread and before long she is visited by a pair of women looking for help with an illegal body modification procedure. Soon, Mary has fully entered the world of body modification – forsaking her future as a surgeon for the underground (and illegal world) of extreme plastic surgery.

The Soska sisters dedicate American Mary to Eli Roth, the American filmmaker who helped put torture porn on mainstream America’s map. Despite this dedication, American Mary isn’t nearly as bloody or violent as you might expect. There are scenes of torture and disfigurement, to be sure, but most of it is either implied or hinted at (minus one slightly extended and possibly unneeded rape scene). Instead of drowning the film in gore and rubber body parts, the Soska Sisters wisely choose to flex their funnybone, crafting a dark comedy that is built off the back of the very capable Isabelle.

As Mary, Isabelle is given a chance to create a strong, feminist anti-hero – a Dexter Morgan in a black leather apron and pumps. Mary is constantly shat upon by life until it just gets to be too much and she strikes back with her very capable surgical skills. Capturing one of her tormentors, Mary takes to him with scalpel and suture – creating a monstrosity that evokes the finale of Tod Browning’s Freaks.

Despite not being overly bloody, American Mary features a lot of disturbing images and ideas. This darkness, though, is counterbalanced by another exceptionally strong component of Mary’s character –  her friendship with Beatress, a young woman played by Tristan Risk who is addicted to using plastic surgery to alter her appearance into something closely resembling Betty Boop. The two have a ton of great scenes together and Risk, a new actress, manages to really sell her role despite being weighed down with heavy make-up and prosthetics.

Less developed, though, is the unrequited relationship between Mary and Billy, the owner of the strip club where Mary sets up shop. Antonio Cupo is certainly enjoyable to watch as Billy but the relationship (or lack there of) he has with Mary never quite manages to rise above feeling shoehorned in and forced.

The Soska Sisters have a really fun cameo as a pair of body modification enthusiasts who hire Mary for a truly bizarre surgical procedure.

American Mary is a fun film. Some of the choices – overblown and obvious (especially in the soundtrack department), somewhat damper some of the enjoyment but overall the movie remains a pleasant treat for horror fans. Full of heart and warmth (something totally unexpected for the film), American Mary manages to cross the chasm between the hardcore and casual horror fan and, in the end, is a complete blast from a pair of very promising filmmakers.

Director: Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska
Notable Cast: Katharine Isabelle, Julia Maxwell and Paula Lindberg
Writers: Jen Soska and Syliva Soska