“Do you think I’m crazy?” This is a line of dialogue spoken by Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) at a pivotal and emotional moment towards the end of American Mary, the second film directed by Dead Hooker in a Trunk directors Jen and Sylvia Soska aka Twisted Twins. I bring this up because the crazy question is something I feel like asking my fellow horror fans now that I have seen this film.
For months now American Mary has been hyped like the second coming of horror. If you have an interest in the genre and are on twitter you cannot escape the maelstrom caused by the publicity. To be fair to the Soskas they do play a good game. They have used Twitter to reach their audience and interact with them a lot more than your typically aloof filmmaker that you find on there.
They have also travelled the festival circuit with the film and appeared with it for maximum hype. All of this has added to the bluster and proclamations of ‘The Future of Horror’ that were all the rage when Eli Roth first appeared. The thing is now I have seen it, I feel a little bit like ‘what am I missing here?’
For a film that is a tad longer than your usual horror film, the film doesn’t have that much plot to speak of. Mary is a student studying medicine and struggling to make ends meet despite being talented and something of a surgical whiz. Eventually she gives up and goes for a hostess job at a seedy bar and whilst there ends up patching up a victim of the sleazy owner Billy (Antonio Cupo). Mary fears for her safety after this but one of the dancers at the club who has been surgically altered to look like Betty Boop ends up hiring her to do some body modification on another dancer/hooker who wishes to be a living doll with no ‘details’ on her body.
After Mary realises that her surgical peers are a bunch of sleazebags and they take advantage of her, she leaves medical school and takes vengeance. To make ends meet and to satisfy her growing bloodlust she sinks further and further into the underground of body modification, taking money for jobs that surgeons just won’t do and rapidly losing her mind in the process.
I should state first of all that I did like American Mary. If there is one thing that is guaranteed to make my flesh crawl it’s the whole body mod sub-culture. I can’t even look at much of it when it comes on the TV on those reality shows because it makes me that queasy. It’s an interesting subject for a horror film and this kind of freakishness works in the film’s favour. To me the surgically enhanced living dolls present in the film were the stuff of nightmares and it’s something that hasn’t really been done before to my knowledge even though it’s pretty rich with material to draw from.
The film is definitely stylish, the Soska twins create a kind of dark, freak-noir and the film is drenched in atmosphere which makes it overall a film very hard to dislike because you just want to wallow in the depravity of it all. The role of the surgeon as someone essentially playing god or Mother Nature, holding patients’ lives in their hands isn’t really a subject matter that has been explored much on film and I preferred this to the recent and similar Excision.
The faults with this film lie in the screenplay. Once the atmosphere, premise and motivations are established, the film feels like it has nowhere to go. In the scheme of things, Mary takes her revenge fairly early on and after this and the parade of freaks on patrol, the film meanders badly. It seems to think that wallowing in the darkness equals plot but this isn’t the case and so motivations become muddy and relationships don’t pay off the way you think they might. Things do come full circle come the ending but had the film trimmed ten or so minutes then I could be right there with all the others shouting ‘The Future of Horror is Here!’ or at least a bit quieter ‘Promising’.
Katharine Isabelle is a fascinating screen presence, having made her debut all those years ago in Ginger Snaps to much acclaim we haven’t really seen her that much despite the fact she has worked consistently at the lower budget end of film and TV. Here now fully grown up she gives a performance which is sexy, dangerous and vulnerable and I did feel a tinge of sadness at her fate come the climax. Sadly she isn’t really matched in the acting stakes by anybody around her, an English accented detective weirdly pops up and takes you right out of the film and Antonio Cupo is pretty but wooden as a coffin.
American Mary is solid horror that is likeable and has a fascinating premise. Sadly for this viewer it falls short of classic status. This may not be the popular opinion but it is mine and I am ready for you to disagree with me.