Mary Mason is strapped for cash. She studies hard to be a surgeon at university and lives on her own in a small apartment where at night she operates on cold turkeys, but Student Loans keep calling her demanding she pay the fees. So one evening she answers a job ad at a nearby Gentleman’s club, where the owner, Billy, asks her to strip to her underwear and to give him a massage. Mid-massage Billy gets a call saying that one of his ‘gang’ is dying in the basement from a fatal wound to the chest and he desperately offers Mary $5,000 to save his life. Mary accepts, completes the operation successfully and returns home with the money. Later that week however, a woman who looks uncannily like Betty Boop turns up at her apartment asking for Mary to perform surgery on her friend. Again, Mary accepts and she is subsequently drawn into the underground, and very illegal, world of body modification.
Definitely one of the more original films of the festival, American Mary is obviously a very well thought through, very well made piece of cinema, the kind that we don’t really seem to get anymore, what with all the teen-orientated horror about possession and found-footage that’s shown all year round. It’s certainly a very refreshing film to watch. Its themes echo strongly that of David Cronenberg’s body-horror era, especially Scanners, The Brood or even Videodrome, and more recently films like Human Centipede and Audition. Then obviously there’s the iconic Dr Frankenstein or Dr Jekyll; the idea of altering the human body, changing its basic composition, which holds a strong resonance in American Mary as we see her in the operating theatre slicing and grafting bits of her patients’ skin.
More importantly though, it’s also a film directed by women (the Soska sisters, whose debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk has been a favourite amongst grindhouse fans) specifically about women. The character of Mary has no male friends; in fact some of the only men with whom she comes into contact are either perverts or misogynists, and theme of revenge is strong throughout, inspiring scenes similar to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It may seem like a complicated idea, but for the most part, it works – for while the plot might be confused at times, it’s the well-written characters and their actors that drive the film forward. Katherine Isabelle, who plays Mary, is close to perfection in her role, creating a blend of Zooey Deschanel and Wednesday Addams: a light-hearted performance, yet with a grounded, macabre centre that can be quite menacing at times. The Soska sisters even make an appearance as identical twins, ‘Queens of the body-mod world’, with filed teeth, sinister German accents and corset piercings down their back. The whole film plays like a Marilyn Manson music video.
Not a film for the squeamish, though definitely one for fans of any type of horror – it’s strangely fascinating, yet never unbelievable.
Image by Jen and Sylvia Soska via Flickr