American Mary

The Soska Sisters, 2012

Typical. You wait ages for a psychosexual body horror with a bizarre surgical fixation, then two come along at once. Stranger still is that both turned out as well as they did, offering distinctly different takes on the subject that set them apart in their own right. So sharpen your scalpels and prepare your best cringing gear, it’s that time again, as we take a butcher’s at the Soska Sisters’ American Mary.

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“Mostly ‘armless,eh? We can do that.”

Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps, Freddy vs Jason) stars as Mary Mason, a promising surgical student. Becoming increasingly disillusioned with her profession and finding herself straining to make ends meet, a chance encounter brings her into the world of underground surgery, eventually introducing her to one of the harder of hardcore fetishes, extreme cosmetic body modification. As she delves ever deeper into her strange new world, her reputation starting to precede her as the new darling of the fetish community, she finds her surroundings starting to change her.

It’s easy to come into the Soska’s follow-up to their grindhouse throwback Dead Hooker in a Trunk with certain preconceptions in mind, but to their credit those preconceptions will be entirely wrong. This is much more accomplished stuff, both on a technical and a storytelling level. No longer beholden to trading on a sense of trashy nostalgia, this is a more confident work, happy to blaze its own trail on its own terms.

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Betty Boop fetishist Beatress is another highlight.

Though certain to make you squirm in places, it’s nowhere near as explicit as you’d expect, confident enough to pull back from the worst of the surgical detail that other films might have revelled in. And for all the bizarre characters and outlandish fetishes on display, it never forgets to treat its subjects with a certain degree of humanity. It reminds me a little of Todd Browning’s Freaks in that respect, and that can only be a good thing. Indeed, a great deal of the more monstrous acts are committed by the straightest characters from typical positions of male power, letting you know in no uncertain terms where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie. It might be overreaching to claim it as a feminist film, but it’s certainly one with a distinctly feminine take on the material that really sets it apart.

It’s helped along by a tremendous performance from Katharine Isabelle, finally returning to a great lead role after too many years in the bit-part wilderness, proving once and for all that she’s one of the strongest actresses in the genre when given something she can really get her teeth into. It’s just a shame that with subject matter as strong as this, she may not get the kind of accolades she truly deserves, but hey, at least we know better. I can only hope it leads to a few more leading roles in the near future, as it’s great to have our Ginger back.

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Our directors, ladies and gentlemen.

The only major criticism I have is that the film does seem to lose its way a little in its final moments. While never coming completely undone, it does feel a little rushed towards its conclusion compared to the deft handling of all that came before. It’s far from ruinous, but the faltering final steps are a little disappointing, knocking it back from masterpiece status to “merely” a great piece of work.

With their second film, Jen & Sylvia Soska have set themselves out as a real force to be reckoned with. A huge improvement on their previous work in every imaginable way, aside from a sloppy final act this has everything going for it. Strangely beautiful, engaging and often darkly funny, add in a career-best performance from Isabelle and you’ve got an irresistible slice of outsider cinema.

 

4 Stars - Excellent

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