Jan 9, 2013

American Mary [18]

Dir: Jen Soska / Sylvia Soska
There are plusses and pitfalls for a film acquiring great word of mouth coming out of a festival, especially a genre focused festival. This film, the second from Twisted Twins Jen and Sylvia Soska, was a huge audience hit at Frightfest, and I can see why, but some films that work in that environment don't translate well out of it, and that, for me, was certainly the case with American Mary.

The titular Mary (Katherine Isabelle) is a medical student, just beginning her surgical residency. Beset by money troubles, she goes for a job at a strip club run by Billy (Antonio Cupo), but when he discovers she's got medical training, Billy pays Mary to keep someone he's been torturing alive. Soon after, Mary has a phone call from one of Billy's dancers; Beatress (Tristan Risk), who offers her a lot of money to perform body modifications on a friend of hers. Mary tries to get out of the body modification sub-culture, but, after something terrible happens to her, finds herself sucked further and further in.

I think what the Twisted Twins are pursuing here is a feminist take on the body horror of the likes of David Cronenberg, bound up with elements of a vengeance narrative (which, frankly, could be better developed). They clearly have the grounding in the genre, a solid visual sense, and a liking for and ability to make shocking images, all of which serve them well. The problem is that the best body horror, to my mind, uses the body as a metaphor, a vessel to discuss larger ideas and make a larger point. This was where I struggled with American Mary, not only is the narrative throughline somewhat weak and scattershot, but either the ideas that the Soskas are trying to discuss here are going over my head, or the film isn't communicating them very effectively.

It does want to delve into this body modification culture, but the film never really explores it in a way that brings light to the characters or their motivations. For instance, the directors make a cameo as (badly accented) German twins who want some very extreme body modifications. They do discuss their motivations a bit, but otherwise the scene carries little weight – striking though it is – as little in it resonates in the rest of the film.

The film is patchy in most areas. From a writing standpoint, Mary is well developed, and we understand and feel her character arc, and why she gets pulled deeply into this world, however, some of the dialogue is laughable, and most of the characters who surround her are underdeveloped (the exception is perhaps a scene that gives Lance (Twan Holliday), Billy's right hand man, a little backstory). This is a particular problem with Mary's more senior colleagues, who are such transparent bastards that Mary herself appears at best laughably naïve, which she demonstrably isn't otherwise, and at worst dumb which, similarly, she isn't in any other scene.

The performances are also hit and miss, though some of this may be the fault of the screenplay. Given such underdeveloped characters to play, it's tough to expect David Lovgren (as Dr Grant) or John Emmet Tracy (as a detective investigating Mary) to give award winning performances, but it's still disappointing to find one so cartoony and the other so wooden. On the plus side of the casting though Twan Holliday has surprisingly nuanced moments as Lance, and Tristan Risk's unsettlingly perky performance (aided by her make up) is one of the film's most memorable elements.

The standout performance, and indeed the thing that holds American Mary together, making it somewhat engaging despite its many flaws, comes from Katherine Isabelle. Isabelle has done much good work in the horror genre before, but this is her best performance to date, and her slow progress from a half amused, half horrified, reaction to her first patient to the total detachment from people and perhaps reality that marks her last few scenes is compelling and scary. It's the kind of performance that deserves a lot of notice, but won't get it because this is a horror film.

Isabelle is aided in the metamorphosis of her character by the make up and wardrobe, which makes her more stylised scene by scene, and by the general design of the film. Jen and Sylvia Soska serve up skin crawlingly nasty images at times, particularly in the first surgery scene – the only one we see the whole process of - and their use of colour; blacks and dark greens in the body modding world, starker and brighter in the 'real' world, both broken at times by splashes of red is sometimes striking. The problem for me is that none of these things really adds up to an overarching theme.

The Soskas have, I suspect, a lot that they want to say, but in American Mary it never really coalesces into anything that would make the film more than a collection of hit and miss parts, brought to sometimes stuttering life by some nicely nasty imagery and a standout leading performance. Ultimately, this has to go down as a disappointment, at least when seen without the benefit of a self-selecting Grindhouse crowd.
★★☆☆☆

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