I’d first heard of the Soska Sisters – identical twins, Sylvia and Jen – when their popular independent feature, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, burst onto the scene a few short years ago. The lovely ladies became something of an overnight success, at least on the horror festival circuit, where the duo seemed to pop up anywhere and everywhere, dolled up in matching fetish wear, kabuki/goth make-up, and, on occasion, spattered with blood. I didn’t see their first film, but, judging by its comical title and the sisters’ outlandish looks and behavior, I just assumed the Soskas were graduates of the Team Troma blood, boobs, and buffoonery school of filmmaking (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Then along came Mary. American Mary, to be precise.
I’d heard the buzz, seen the clips, and read the reviews, but none of that prepared me for what amounts to one of the most elegantly crafted, unique, and hypnotic horror film experiences I’ve seen in years.
Mary Mason (the gorgeous and criminally underused Katharine Isabelle) is a star surgical student going through hard times. Her phone’s been shut off, her rent’s overdue, and her professors, especially the egomaniacal hardass lecturer, Dr. Grant (David Lovgren), are pushing her to her breaking point. Needing some fast money, Mary applies for a job as a masseuse at a shady strip club owned by the even shadier Billy (Antonio Cupo). During a cursory “interview”, Billy and Mary are interrupted by one of Billy’s bouncers who have, apparently, gone too while teaching one of Billy’s enemies a lesson. Knowing that Mary’s a medical student, Billy offers her five thousand dollars to patch the hapless victim up, and Mary goes through with it, but is later overwhelmed by guilt and fear. She spends the next day hiding out in her apartment, but receives a mysterious call from a woman named Beatrice (Tristan Risk) who tells Mary she got her information from the resume she left behind at Billy’s club. Mary refuses to listen to her, so Beatrice – a plastic surgery disaster who’s paid good money to make herself look like Betty Boop - decides to see her in person, offering Mary money just to hear her out. It seems that Beatrice has a friend who is also interested drastic body modification work, and, if Mary will take the job, she will pay her ten thousand dollars. Desperate for the money, Mary takes the job, and, despite her misgivings, finds herself enjoying the work.
Later, while doing rounds during her surgical internship, Mary is invited back to Dr. Grant’s house for a gathering of other surgeons. Mary is thrilled by the invitation, but, when she arrives, she discovers all is not as it seems, and is drugged and raped by Grant. Devastated, Mary quits med school and decides to go into body modification full-time, hiring Billy and his boys to kidnap Dr. Grant so that he can serve as her experimental canvas and catalog model for prospective clients.
Mary soon becomes the toast of the underground body modification scene, and begins to rake in enough money to move to a new loft apartment, replete with her own “operating room”. As her star rises, however, her actions start to catch up with her, with both the angry spouse of a former client and a suspicious police officer following her every move.
American Mary is as darkly eccentric and sexy as the Soska sisters, themselves, boasting a career defining performance by Isabelle, gorgeous cinematography by Brian Pearson (Final Destination 5/My Bloody Valentine), and a thoroughly unique and engrossing plot. I especially liked the film’s camera work, which featured a lot of Cronenbergian slow pans and zooms, as well as long, deliberate takes that gave the actors room to breathe. I was equally pleased by the fact that the film was edited just as thoughtfully as it was shot, free of the Avid vomit/noisy editing popularized by the Saw films. While the third act stumbles a bit, and the body modification scene, as a whole, isn’t explored as thoroughly as I would have liked, American Mary is still an enormously satisfying film and a refreshing change of pace from the remakes and torture porn flicks dominating the genre today.
American Mary comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Xlrator, and is presented in a crisp, sumptuously detailed 2.40:1 transfer that is virtually flawless. The film’s aesthete is generally dark, with a reliance on shadow and moody lighting (the blood red lighting bathroom scene in which Mary taunts one of Billy’s dancers comes to mind), but there’s never a hint of digital crush or excessive noise. I found the accompanying 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track to be the perfect complement, with the sparse score and immersive environmental sounds lending to the film’s mesmerizing imagery.
Bonus features include a very fun commentary track featuring the Soska sisters, as well as Katharine Isabelle and Tristan Risk. The track is a bit crowded as the group talk all over each other, but it’s like listening in on close friends reminiscing about a really great party they all went to. It’s obvious that the participants have great affection for one another, as well as the film, itself, and it’s a total blast to listen in. We’re also given a Behind the Scenes featurette entitled The Making of American Mary, but it’s more a collection of raw footage than the traditional EPK style short, free of narration and talking heads. Rounding out the extras are trailers for this film and other Xlrator releases.