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“AMERICAN MARY” (Movie Review)

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[This review was initially published in September 2012, it is reposted below in light of the film's theatrical and VOD release.]

Full Disclosure: This writer was not a fan of the Twisted Twins’ maiden cinematic voyage, DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK. Made on a budget by Vancouver’s Jen and Sylvia Soska, the cheapie action comedy is scrappy and full of indie energy but is also shrill, choked with gratuitous, numbing profanity and–outside of the twins themselves—generally poor performances. But what did appeal was the maverick way the sisters managed to push their product using social media, forums and general upbeat fan-friendly enthusiasm to build a legacy as not only burgeoning filmmakers, but masters of entrepreneurial business sense, whipping up a mass frenzy about their next project, something called AMERICAN MARY….

Of course none of this Sturm und Drang would add up to squat if said follow-up wasn’t at least a  cut above its quickie predecessor. Happily, not only is the considerably pricier AMERICAN MARY (available now on VOD from Xlrator Media and in select theaters May 31) an astonishing improvement on DEAD HOOKER in every respect, it’s a quantum leap in another tonal direction; a gorgeously art-directed exercise in psychosexual grand guignol full of strange characters, grotesque imagery and bizarre, black-as-night humor. It’s a definitive body horror film, elegant, disturbing but never oppressive and if nothing else, it’s the work of two powerful, loud voices whose joy of moviemaking screams from every frame.

Katherine Isabelle (the GINGER SNAPS trilogy) stars as Mary, a med student who is in dire need of extra scratch. In a desperate bid, she applies for a job in a greasy strip club as a rub-and-tug masseuse and during the “interview,” when revelations of her surgical intern status is revealed, is called on to repair a screaming thug who had been roughed up a bit too much by some underlings. This quickie cash “meatball surgery” leads to an impromptu appearance by Beatress (Tristan Risk), one of the club’s dancers, at Mary’s apartment. Beatress has had her face grimly “revised” to resemble that of Betty Boop; skin pulled tight, mouth pursed, skull implants reshaping her face, and after witnessing Mary’s “performance” asks if she would be willing—for a tidy sum—to operate on her friend, another body modifier who wants her nipples removed and vagina sewed shut so that she resembles a living Barbie doll. Mary complies and her success and growing obsession lead her to becoming “Bloody Mary,” one of the most in-demand underground body-tweaking surgeons in the city.

But that’s only the set up of AMERICAN MARY, and what’s so delicious about the film is the various kinky ways in which the Soskas develop the tale and constantly surprise the audience. This is no mere freak show shocker, rather a character study of a girl finding empowerment through increasingly vulgar means. It’s a bit of a love story too, a tragedy and of course, a bile-black comedy. It’s clear the twins had not only fun sculpting this macabre world, but also the creative freedom to let their bent imaginations run wild.

And that’s the beauty of this film. Though AMERICAN MARY is heavily laced with gore and perversity and even torture, it’s not the dour sort of slipshod cruelty porn we’ve been so larded up with this past decade. Rather, it has an old fashioned enthusiasm, like a kid pulling out the stops trying to spook the neighbors on Halloween. It’s a curious film, like an old Jess Franco sex and surgery picture spliced into the DNA of Cronenberg and dipped in sugar. Normally, I dislike when filmmakers use pop music in horror to seem ironic, but here the Soskas’ choices only emphasize the sense of play, selecting witty tracks and juxtaposing them over bizarre imagery. The opening credits set the tone, as Isabelle’s fingers suture scalpel-made gashes on raw chicken flesh while the old Cat Stevens song “The First Cut is the Deepest” warbles on the soundtrack; except, it’s not the Stevens version. It’s the Rod Stewart version, rather the live version of the Rod Stewart version whose applause and light stage banter make the queasy sight of fowl surgery seem like Mary is “performing.” It sets a weird, wonky tone that the sisters never waiver from. Oh, and have I mentioned the Soskas are in the movie? They are…and their hilariously horrifying cameo is ingeniously self-referential.

And if AMERICAN MARY has flaws–which I’m sure it does–they’re dwarfed. I was having such a good time, I chose to ignore them. Hell, some of my best, most beautiful and interesting friends are flawed. That’s what makes them so unforgettable.

3.5_skull

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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