Directed by: Jen Soska
Produced by: Evan Taylor
Screenplay by: Jen Soska
Starring: Katharine Isabelle
Music by: Peter Allen
Cinematography by: Brian Pearson
Editing by: Bruce MacKinnon
Studio(s): American Mary Productions
Twisted Twins Productions
Distributed by: IndustryWorks Pictures
Universal Pictures (United Kingdom)
Release date(s): August 27, 2012 (London Frightfest Film Festival)
January 11, 2013 (United Kingdom)
May 31, 2013 (United States, limited)
Running time: 102 minutes
Production budget: (N/A)
Box-office revenue: (N/A)
(Second shot at the first two paragraphs - blogger went screwie louie last time!) So, I haven't been too busy on the blog front the past week, the first reason being that I had a whack load of work at the weekend (fifteen-hour shift from six a.m.-to nine p.m. on Saturday), but I am still also pondering over Gravity. I know some of you are perhaps sick hearing so much about the movie, but it is a monumental achievement in filmmaking and deserves to be seen. Despite this, I have a number of different movies in the line-up for review, with this one being followed by Diaz: Don't Clean Up This Blood, and there will be definite reviews for Stoker, Oblivion and A Hijacking coming up, so, for all the latest and greatest in the movies, keep your eyes posted!
Today's movie up for review is American Mary. The film is directed by the Soska sisters, Jen and Sylvia, who made their feature debut in 2009 with Dead Hooker In A Trunk. They have already after one feature and numerous shorts got a reputation for very violent exploitation movies, and this, their sophomore feature, is along the same lines. Starring Katharine Isabelle of Ginger Snaps fame, Mary Mason is a medical student preparing to become a surgeon. Facing with numerous issues, most notably the financial dilemmas that come with student life, Mary applies for a job at a strip club, and while there, is roped into stitching up a man who has been tortured. Carving out herself a niche, this serves as a gateway for her to ply her skills to taking high-paying clients from the body modification community. Voulez-vous?
Starting with the good, it's got a strong lead performance from Katharine Isabelle. Her Mary Mason is a sympathetic and believable character, and the fact that Isabelle does not rely on amateur dramatics to convey her character's status (or rather stasis) in life is intelligent. Furthermore, what is most surprising is the subtlety with which she depicts the character's arc. It's rather startling seeing just the stoicism and practice with which she goes about her deeds (by this time she's become known as Bloody Mary), and yet it never feels less than legitimate when a whole bathroom of women empties when she enters. Also impressive is Tristan Risk, who plays Beatress, a women who has modified herself to fit the profile of Betty Boop. She has this squeaky little voice that gives a little bit of a twang to the dialogue, which is rather funny when she's spouts the odd obscenity. Also, for all the character's eccentricities, Beatress is still a sweet and endearing one, and Risk does a great job of physically and vocally portraying the part. Certain critical elements yammer on about the misogyny of horror films, but in my experience, women are often given more opportunity to flex their muscles in this genre than most others. Much as this can be said about Katharine Isabelle's acting, the same can be said about the Soska sisters. I don't want to focus on the fact that it's a horror movie directed by two women, but that may have implications on the density and exploration of the film's thematic content. In that regard, it is interesting seeing men who are so outright misogynistic it's borderline parodic, but I think that's the point. The use of body modification as a metaphor for embracing yourself and your personal desires of transformation ties with the exploitation of women-as-object by lecherous men seeking to penetrate in more ways than one. While I could go into further discussion about the themes of the film, I don't think that a subjective matter like that is my job in an objective review, so I'll just say that the rich thematic content of American Mary not only gives it a satirical edge, but also ensures it stands out from the pack in terms of genre film. Also, for a movie that is so much about modification and transformation, you'd like to think that the make-up is of a good quality, and that it certainly is. There are members of the body modification community in the film, but there are some who are subjected to more make-up than others (Risk's is entirely convincing), and the make-up is done in such a way that you are unable to tell the difference. It also gives you a sort-guessing game anytime someone comes to Mary, trying to figure out just how much surgery has been done previously. The Soska sisters (who also cameo in the film as a pair of twins from Berlin soliciting Mary's services) are two firecrackers who direct their picture with real oomph!. Carved from the same cloth as the likes of David Cronenberg, who masterfully used body horror as societal metaphor, the Soska's are well on their way to becoming great directors. They have a literary sense of depth, and like Cronenberg (and others such as Romero, Craven etc.) they respect the genre's grounding in a good story.
Now, while I think American Mary has a lot going for it, there are a number of key flaws to the film that deny it from it's potential status as a great horror film. The intrinsic problem, though it is the root of many of the film's praiseworthy attributes, is the script. For me, a script has two layers: that of the basic structure which moves through the acts, getting a story from a-to-b, and the second of them is that of the exploration (or lack thereof) of the thematic content through various ways such as metaphor, satire et al. While American Mary has that second layer in great density, like The Purge, it neglects that of the basic structure. It's all good and dandy to have strong themes to talk about, but you've got to have some sort of structure or else it's all going to collapse. For the most part, it works well, but the final act is one of those cases where it seems like it wasn't thought out well enough. I don't know if it was intended to be an operatic thing or the whole "you reap what you sow" theme, but with all that's come before it feels rather deflating. Furthermore, (I'll do my best not to spoil) the deus ex machina that wraps up the film is rubbish, especially with all these other elements kicking around. Don't get me wrong, perhaps the Soska's designed it that way, but for me the denouement felt really poxy and I wanted the movie to go on, not because it wasn't the ending I desired (hey, I still think Arlington Road has a great ending), but because it wasn't the appropriate one.
Despite these issues with the script and the fact that with a much better structure, which buckles under the weight of its thematic content (and getting rid of the whole deus ex machina ending), it really could have been a great horror movie if it was just given a bit more honing, American Mary is still a good horror movie. Katharine Isabelle's lead performance is strong, and Tristan Risk's Beatress is a welcome addition to the fold. Also, the make-up is great, as is to be expected about from a movie so much about body modification, a theme which is used well to discourse on misogyny and exploitation. Finally, while this is by no means refined work, the Soska sisters are clearly a force to be reckoned with in the near future.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 6.4/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Busy (little bee!)