Last year I caught a darkly comedic yet emotionally jarring body-centric horror film called Excision, showing the twisted road an high school student/aspiring surgeon travels down by mixing strange fetishes, sisterly love, bad parenting, and awkward teenage years. Fast forward to 2013, and we’ve got another bodily horror film about an aspiring surgeon, except this time she uses her medicinal powers for evil after a series of unfortunate events. The film, titled American Mary, is directed by the Soska sisters (Jen/Sylvia), the same two Canadian sisters responsible for the recent grindhouse wannabe Dead Hooker In A Trunk. So yeah, it’s pretty much wholesome family entertainment.
But OK, I shouldn’t unfairly compare the two films because one is about a surgeon who seriously isn’t ready for her craft yet has the delusion she’s a natural, and the other is about a top-of-the-class medical student with the skills to match her brains yet encounters a few monetary problems. The later is American Mary, which exposes the hidden world of “body modifications,” an underground movement where people get cosmetic surgeries that do insane things like put horns on heads or pierce things any sane person would leave untouched. But it’s all about creative expressionism, and if you want to slit your tongue in half like a snake, be my guest – and call me after. That’d sure be a hell of a night of…um…sorry, lost focus – right, American Mary and the seedy yet lucrative world of body modifying.
I’ll absolutely bite and say the Soska sisters introduced me to an entirely new world of strange, but one that intrigues and almost hypnotizes with creative beauty. The lengths some people are willing to go to just for unique expressionism is rather brave, while also being a tad wasteful and stupid, but hell, if you want to pay a couple thousand dollars to remove the nipples from your chesticles, who am I to say no? Go on, live happy as a Barbie doll!
One character in particular provided a perfect example of people’s obsessions, being a living embodiment of cartoon character Betty Boop. Played by Tristan Risk, Beatress instigates main character Mary’s (Katharine Isabelle) decision to become a special type of surgeon. Being one of the most intriguing characters hands down because of her transformation, I would have loved to see more be done with her character, as well as many of the other altered individuals. The Soska sisters even appear as a pair of lesbionic twins looking to take their relationship to the next level, offering a creepy yet sensual performance, but again, they merely just come and go for a quick surgery. Hack, slash, and characters are on their way – but I never really felt a lasting character change in Mary.
Getting past that whole Gothic hedonism and bodily mutilation though, I found it hard to find many layers when the visible skin was peeled back from American Mary. Many are praising the Soska sisters for creating some feminism promoting tour-de-force film with a strong female character, and I’m not taking anything away from Katharine Isabelle’s performance as Mary Mason, but to me her role was nothing but a bunch of body slicing in exchange for dollar signs and some random phone calls from her Grandma. From desperate student to internet sensation, Mary’s journey never grew monumental or gripping enough to warrant emotional investment. It’s really a weak story of ridiculous revenge coupled with terrible planning, and she more or less becomes just another silly girl who thinks she’s above judicial interjection or consequences – all made possible by some pathetically incompetent side characters.
For the horror fans out there, I’m sure you’re wondering how gross the Soska sisters made American Mary, but I can say confidently all but a few scenes really messed with my stomach, again letting me down. Everything nasty was mostly done off-screen, and American Mary actually put a much stronger focus on sexuality over the procedures, going for the thematic conclusion that anyone can be sexy in their own way. A meaningful and important message to get across no doubt, but this could have been told much better through Mary herself. The choices she made in making these specific people happy mimic the same thinking, growing more extreme with each client, but Mary’s attitude wears thin along with this idea of individuality.
Katharine Isabelle tried her best to make Mary a worthy character, but I don’t see the whole Superwoman praise many are giving her. She’s like a kinky savior for the masses society ignores, I get it, but she becomes just as depraved as the man who forced her into her new life by embracing her online alter-ego. I found it all more self-indulgent than heroic, more obsessive than independent, and more brainwashed than open-minded. At no point did I imagine Mary standing atop a building with a cape flapping in the wind, addressing crowds of women begging for a strong cinematic representation of themselves – but hey, that’s just me.
American Mary is surely a psychotic look into the world of body modification, but flat-lines all too quickly to engage audiences completely. It felt almost as unnecessary as some of the procedures Mary performed, albeit with some flashy moments of modifying fun. Katharine Isabelle just didn’t get enough to work with for her character Mary, getting stuck somewhere between emotionless and bitchy, and her actions don’t carry much clout either. I mean, seriously, since when is deleting someone’s contact from your iPhone a moving gesture to suggest they’ve passed on? Sorry Soska sisters, you’ve got some serious style, but American Mary is lacking ever-important substance.