Friday, June 21, 2013

Film Review: Jen Soska's and Sylvia Soska's American Mary

American Mary, the first big-budget film from Canadian co-directors and sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska’s Twisted Twin Productions, is itself a twisted, crooked amble down a rocky path of body horror and suspense. The 2012 film, Mary, not only successfully objectifies its heroine, Mary Mason, played by Katherine Isabelle; it also makes the viewer complicit in this objectification, a dipping of the toe in the sexual art of cutting, and illicit body modification surgery.

Medical student Mary can’t make the basic payment for her student loan. She attends her classes distracted, heckled by her unusually profane surgery professor, Dr. Grant, portrayed by David Lovgren. To make money, she turns to the world of adult dancing, which in turns opens up the doorway to helping the strip club boss, Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) enforce local underworld rules by either torturing parties of interest, or ensuring they live through the night. Isabelle is curvaceous, reluctant, but smart, and transforms into something else entirely. Meanwhile, Barker, a male authority figure, inverts. He becomes a sad sack of lasciviousness and desperation, pining after Mary after he has had too many drinks.
The body horror inherent in this bent little number is a clear tribute to Eli Roth. Bar owner Billy actually bears a striking resemblance to Roth, albeit a progressively dishevelled Roth. In one instance, the mutilation directly salutes Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series, particularly the methods with which the demonic Cenobites exact pain and pleasure from their victims. But unlike other horror fare such as Hostel and Saw, nearly all of the bodily mutilation occurs off-screen. As a result, viewers squirm and twist in their own imaginings. In some places, ironically, this less-is-more technique disappoints. For insance, when two twin sisters (creepily portrayed by the Soska sisters, adopting German accents) request an operation to bring them closer together, the viewer is denied seeing the final result. Instead, they only get a brief glimpse of the design drawn on a piece of paper.

Mary, Mary, why you bugging? See the film - and the obvious reference to I Spit On Your Grave - and find out.
As an aside, Mary is whole different monster when compared with the first Soska sisters’ effort. The riotous, uneven, but amusing 2009 movie, Dead Hooker in a Trunk. Made for $2,500, Hooker proves the old axiom that you get what you pay for-ludicrous violence, exploitation, mediocre acting and all. Watch it (preferably as a three-beer viewing) and witness watch a woman protagonist kick some butt, while accepting the feature's lunatic sense of humour and lack of verisimilitude. There's latent talent in Hooker, as evidenced by the end credits, which reveal that just  most things in the film, including make-up, lighting, and design, were done by the same half-dozen people.

Katherine Isabelle as Mary, the driving force in this bigger, badder and arguably better feature, was also fabulous as the coming-of-age heroine in the Ginger Snaps series trilogy. Disclaimer: This reviewer, admittedly, only viewed the first Ginger, dismayed, as he was by descriptions of time-travel in one of the two sequels. Her Mary is smart, detached, and tough. She diminishes most of the male cast simply by merely being present and powerful, even as she appears often gloriously stylish and sensual and, alternately, coldly modified herself. Mary’s bad; the film Mary is very good
In the end, the film is about the transformation of a character into the Other, and how people want to look, no matter the cost, physically or financially. It’s also partially a study in body modification subculture, featuring what appear to be actual modified people with a variety of  body mods – forked tongues, altered limbs, and reconfigured faces. In this sense, Mary is a modernised version of Freaks, displaying genuine subjects matter-of-factly. A group of rogue surgeons is particularly quirky to the point of appearing obviously sociopathic. The Soskas' use of depth-of-field is a merging of Orson Welles’ directorial eye and Roman Polanski’s. The viewer has to discern the out-of-focus background details that are creeping into their consciousness. This a gratifying exercise for the audience, along with the remainder of unsettling film. The only caveat to Mary being so-bad-she’s-good and Mary being good is the finale. The abrupt ending leaves the viewer scratching their head over why the story wraps up within minutes.

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