XLrator Media // 2012 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // June 21st, 2013
You make sure they deserve it, and don't waste a minute of your time thinking about them after you're done.
When I reviewed Dead Hooker in a Trunk, the first film by Jen and Sylvia Soska, I remarked that, while I didn't really care for the movie, their spirit made me want to watch their follow up, whatever that may have been. I'm glad I did. American Mary is excellent horror and, in every way, a huge step up from their previous effort.
Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle, Ginger Snaps) is a promising but broke medical student on her way to becoming a surgeon. For some extra cash, she answers an ad at a strip club to do some sensual massage, but during her audition, her more legitimate services become required when an enemy of Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo, Smile), the club owner, must be kept alive. After a successful, though gruesome, procedure, she is approached by the underground body mod community to perform other, more unconventional, operations. She's well on her way to making a name for herself in this line of work when she's attacked by her professor, causing her to begin using her unique talents for revenge.
Where their first movie was a wildly uneven, spirited mess of a movie, the Soska sisters return with a stylish horror film that is both consistent and utterly self-assured. Plus, while its body modification subject matter may make it sound extreme, the film is actually quite restrained, or at least a lot more restrained than it could have been.
Really, the body mod stuff is just color for what essentially amounts to a rape-revenge story, but it's also the most fun part of the film. Mary is first approached with a proposition by Beatress Johnson (burlesque dancer Tristan Risk), a woman who has had fourteen surgeries to bring her face as close Betty Boop's as possible, to help out another woman, Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg, Snow Buddies). Ruby has already had plenty of surgery, but wants a final procedure to make her like a doll by removing her nipples and as much of her genitalia as possible, because according to her, a doll can be naked without shame and without being treated as a sexual object. Mary, at this point a pretty normal med student, is understandably a bit freaked out by the whole thing, but the money is far too good to pass up, so not only agrees, but becomes a celebrity in the modification community for it.
Strange as it all sounds, the Soska sisters never treat these people as freaks; instead, they're treated as beautiful, even sexy at times. In fact, the only thing in the film not treated as sexy is the rape scene, which is what it should be. That, more than the horror or the violence, is what makes American Mary such a strange and interesting film. This is a world that exists. It may be on the fringes of society, but it definitely exists, as shown by the montage of real-life mod people who Mary deals with.
Katharine Isabelle is perfect in the lead role, coolly vamping in tight dresses and bangs. Whether a resemblance to Bettie Page was intentional is unclear, but it's most certainly there. Her transformation from nice medical student to cold torture artist is slow, natural, and totally convincing. Also good are the women playing Beatress Johnson and Ruby Realgirl. Neither actress, of course, really look the way they do in the film, and that speaks to their ability to act with their bodies, making them feel like real people while sporting utterly immobile faces.
To that, the effects in American Mary are excellent, from the previously mentioned makeup work to the puppetry that serves for bodies and victims. All of it is practical, with no CGI to be found, and as I am already aware, that makes the whole thing work so much better. These effects give the moving a creepily realistic feel that really makes the movie. Isabelle's performance and the film's cold style are great on their own, but none of it would have worked had they decided to stage the rougher business in front of a green screen.
As it is, combined with the performances and stylish filming, American Mary is just shy of brilliant, with all the spirit of that the Soska sisters displayed in their first film, plus a far more mature level of filmmaking. It may not be an entirely original concept; the body horror of David Cronenberg and Takashi Miike's Audition being among the clear influences, but this is the kind of movie that, had I been thirteen when I first watched it, may well have instantly shot to the top of my favorite movies. At this point, it stands as something I'm excited to watch again and again, hoping it delivers the same kind of uneasy horror that I experienced on my initial viewing.
American Mary arrives in a very solid DVD release from XLRator. The 2.35:1 image transfer is solid all around, with warm colors and accurate skin tones. It's a very dark film, but black levels are always deep and inky, with plenty of detail throughout the frame. The surround sound is equally good, with a mix that is nice and deep throughout the spectrum. Dialog is always bright and clear, music is loud and bass-heavy, and it makes plenty of use of the rear channels with ambient sound spatial effects.
Extras are slight, but fun. We have a fun audio commentary with the Soska sisters, Katharine Isabelle, and Tristan Risk, who have a friendly chat about all aspects of the movie, from the makeup effects to the costumes to some details about the body modifications presented in the film. It might not be the most informative commentary in the world, but it's a lot more enjoyable a listen than much of what I hear. The other extra is an interesting fifteen minute behind-the-scenes featurette showing us a few days in the filming of the movie, with interviews with a number of members of the crew and a few of the actors. It's not an exhaustive list of supplements, but both are good fun.
Given the over-the-top violence of Dead Hooker in a Trunk, I expected something far more audacious from the horror debut of the Soska sisters. American Mary is full of surprises, though, both in the subtlety of the story and the skill with which it was made. Its subject matter may not suit all tastes, but this is not a film to be ignored. Where I was curious about what was to come next from the twins after their first film, I'm now downright excited to see what they come up with next. This is possibly the best horror picture I've seen in a year and I highly recommend it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: XLrator Media
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R