American Mary is Jen and Sylvia Soskas follow-up to Dead Hooker in a Trunk and is a quantum leap in terms of finesse. A better budget, the employment of a professional cinematographer, a better editor and a professional cast, including no less than the great Katherine Isabelle, a mainstay of Canadas muchly underrated Ginger Snaps (2000) and sequels, makes the world of difference. It allows them to polish the raggedy home-movie look that Dead Hooker in a Trunk had and darkens the Soska sisters vision into much more original and unique directions. It is not a perfect film but is a vast leap in quality that shows them as definitely going places.
American Mary could be considered a film version of tvs Nip/Tuck (2003-10) with a Suicide Girls ethos. The Soska sisters delve down into the real world fetish for body modification where they appear to have done their homework and show a fascinating range of split tongues, unusual piercings, implants, people wanting limbs removed and the like, even if one suspects that the film is only scratching the tip of the surface of such an underground. The complaint I suppose I would have is is the best place to depict this world a horror film? If you regard body modification as an alternate form of self or sexual expression, then surely a horror approach is one that is designed to evoke disgust and awe in the vanilla audiences watching. If the film swapped homosexuality, cross-dressing, tattooing, body-piercing or any other form of perfectly normal alternate behaviour for body modification, would not those being portrayed feel that such an approach is one that is designed to aim for sensationalism and moral shock?
Certainly, the Soska sisters delve into what feels like new territory for a film and launch into their subject matter with a perverse fascination. Although the one area in which they prove surprisingly tame is in actually showing Katherine Isabelle conducting any surgery. TVs abovementioned Nip/Tuck did a far more graphic depiction of the various surgeries on a weekly basis it may simply be that the Soska sisters either didnt have the budget to build mock-ups of the bodys being operated on or the knowhow to show what was being depicted in any detail, but it represents a certain tameness of spirit. The films most stylish moment is a scene where Katharine Isabelle walks into a bathroom and intimidates a new stripper by laying out her medical equipment as the girl cowers in one of the cubicles.
In itself, Katharine Isabelles venture down into the world of body modification has little narrative momentum and so the Soska sisters provide this by a B plot in which Katharine Isabelle tortures and murders her lecturer (David Lovgren) after he rapes her under the influence of a roofie and the subsequent police investigation of his disappearance. In interviews, the Soska sisters say that much of American Mary was inspired by what they had to go through to get where they are as directors to which ones mind is immediately spinning off and wondering just what really did go on at film school or in trying to get Dead Hooker in a Trunk promoted, or just what kinds of alternate occupations they were forced to take on to make ends meet. That said, the revenge plot and the body modification plots dont always work that well together. It is part of the writing problems that Dead Hooker in a Trunk had where the film often felt like scenes didnt gel alongside one another or awkwardly progressed into the next. Katharine Isabelle, for instance, makes a jump from med student to experienced surgeon with her own underground practice in next to no time. The abovementioned bathroom scene has enormous style but equally you keep wondering what it has to do with anything else that happens in the film.
Katharine Isabelle does well in the lead, walking through the film with detached cool (not to mention remaining perfectly outfitted), reacting to some of the strangest proposals without even batting an eyelid. She delivers some wonderfully chill lines with perfect nonchalance asking a bound and sliced up David Lovgren I keep asking myself why your left ear still exists. The Soska sisters make cameo appearances as the two twin sisters who turn up and request that Katharine Isabelle swap their left arms with one another. Their appearance is designed to sensationalise they dressed to kill, always holding hands through their scenes together, walking into the club and with one of the sisters kissing a stripper and biting into her lip until it bleeds even if their performance is delivered through outrageously fake Russian accents.