I've heard it said before that surgeons are simply reformed psychopaths that have found a way to channel their sadism into productive careers.
If that's the case, Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle), the chilly star of Jen and Sylvia Soska's gory new horror flick, American Mary, took that theory to new extremes in this intriguing look at the world of hardcore body modification and underground surgery, which played at this year's Whistler Film Festival and opens in theatres everywhere this January.
Mary is a promising student at a Seattle med school, where she struggles with her mounting debt and the unusually high expectations of her potty-mouthed surgeon professor, Dr. Grant (David Lovgren).
With bill collectors knocking at her door and nowhere else to turn, Mary answers a sketchy classified ad at a strip club, where sleazeball owner Billy (Antonio Cupo) pays her $5,000 to perform a less than legitimate backroom surgery that he probably doesn't want the authorities to find out about.
Word soon spreads that Mary's the go-to gal for all your extreme surgery needs, and Beatrice, played by West Coast burlesque star Tristan Risk who was eerily transformed for the role into an over-plasticized body mod scenester obsessed with resembling Betty Boop, enlists the help of the young med student for Ruby (Paula Lindberg), one of her collagen-filled friends, looking for “an unconventional surgery.”
The procedure, it turns out, involves the removal of certain lady bits to make Ruby look like a real life Barbie doll and pays Mary a hefty sum.
Soon enough, Mary is awash in weirdo clients willing to pay large amounts of cash for her unique skill set, all while still trying to make an impression on her professors, who invite her to what must be the coolest looking surgeon's party in the history of medicine (who knew middle-aged doctors were into dubstep?).
After some jilted conversation with unstable surgeons (“I cut people for a living. Cut, cut, cut, CUT!”) Mary is whisked away by Dr. Grant, who drugs and rapes her, capturing the whole thing on videotape.
While this plot point was fairly predictable, it's really where the film starts to get fun. And by fun I mean gruesome, with horror veteran Katharine Isabelle, who first made a name for herself in the cult classic Ginger Snaps movies, shining in her role as our vengeance-obsessed heroine practicing her own brand of extreme surgery on her most unwilling patient, Dr. Grant.
For the overly squeamish, this film is probably not for you, with its close-ups of sliced and diced flesh and limbless victims, but I never felt bludgeoned over the head with gratuitous gore like so many torture porn films from the past few years (think the Saw or Hostel movies). This picture is all about creating a vibe, a mood, and it effectively does that with its stylishly grim shots of dingy basements and sterile operating rooms.
Horror is most effective when presented through the filter of some form of social commentary, and American Mary achieves that through its perspective on modern society's obsession with body image and manufactured beauty.
It won't win any Academy Awards or lavish praise from critics, but it is clear why horror genre purists are all a flutter over the writer-director team of the Soska sisters, perhaps better known as the Twisted Twins, who have become fanboy darlings since the release of their directorial debut, the brilliantly titled Dead Hooker in a Trunk.
While by no means flawless, they have managed to craft a stylish, bloody romp that is as fun as it is gory that should help make the Vancouver twins a household name beyond their exuberant network of online fans.