Katharine Isabelle. She was pretty much my sole reason for checking this small genre film out. I’ve had a ‘thing’ for her going back to when I first encountered this sexy lady in the underrated (and Canadian!) ‘Ginger Snaps’ (2000). Since then, I’d enjoyed her turn in the two, also decent, sequels, ‘Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed’ (2004) and ‘Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning’ (2004), as well as her solid turns in other titles like ‘Insomnia’ (2002) and the series ‘Supernatural’. Hell, even her limited role in the mostly stupid ‘Freddy vs Jason’ (2003) worked for me. Quite simply, I find her sexy and talented…and the fact that she hails from my hometown of Vancouver, B.C. helps too! However, despite these details, my crush on her couldn’t help what a let-down this flick turned out to be.
‘American Mary’ first introduces us, via nauseating close-ups, to medical student ‘Mary Mason’ (Katharine Isabelle) as she practices suturing on a raw turkey corpse, all set to an amateurish rendition of the beautiful classical piece ‘Ave Maria’. We then catch up with her in class, being lambasted by her REALLY unconvincing asshole of a teacher, ‘Dr. Grant’ (David Lovgren), for allowing her cell phone to ring in class (How DARE she!). Not long after this, we begin to get a better idea about ‘Mary’s life…such as it is. Basically, she’s broke as shit (despite living in a FAR bigger apartment than a starving student would EVER have), and desperation is beginning to take hold. After answering a questionable ad in the Classifieds, she turns up at a dingy strip club run by a pretty-boy sleazebag named ‘Billy’ (Antonio Cupo), who instantly and understandably takes a shine to the hot medical student. Mid-interview (which seemed to be heading for stereotypical ‘casting couch’ territory), they’re interrupted by an emergency involving one of ‘Billy’s goons. Seems buddy got himself slashed to shit and is now in desperate need of medical attention. Prompted by the allure of making a quick $5000 to stabilize the leaking dude, ‘Mary’ puts her knowledge to use and saves the day…and the goon. Not long after this incident, a stripper from the club named ‘Beatress’ (Tristan Risk), who has been surgically altered to freakily resemble ‘Betty Boop’, contacts ‘Mary’, much to ‘Mary’s chagrin. It seems that a friend of ‘Beatress’ is in need of some specific cosmetic surgery…and ‘Mary’ may have the skill and the financially-motivated desire to tackle the issue. After some hesitation, ‘Mary’ agrees transform this strange-looking blond woman into that which she wants…a living, breathing Barbie Doll…complete with a lack of recognizable female parts. The gruesome surgery is a success, and the Barbie-fied weirdo becomes something of an internet sensation. Around the same time, ‘Mary’, still on the fence about the direction her life should go in, is invited to attend an exclusive party hosted by and featuring many doctors from her school. Thinking that this may give her an ‘in’, into the local medical community, she instead finds herself quickly ‘Roofied’ and raped by ‘Dr. Grant’. Something in ‘Mary’ snaps as a result of this ugly violation and she quickly pursues revenge, all the while supplementing her income by performing black market body modification surgeries; surgeries that make her very popular to a certain, fucked-up niche crowd. Naturally, shit gets weird.
I’d come across mention of the Soska Sisters in several, horror movie-themed articles and, as a result, curiosity about them and their blossoming body of genre work contributed to my interest in checking this one out (beyond my crush on Katharine Isabelle). The fact that they’re identical twins (19 minutes apart), from my country of Canada (of Hungarian lineage), with a clear penchant for the macabre and ties to the freaky body mod community, gives them a certain ‘gimmick’ and an allure that adds fuel to their cinematic endeavors. While I do think that this film, their first ‘major’ release (it got a limited theatrical run…in the UK), is in serious need of some improvements, I still have to give these girls major props for setting their sights on making this movie, despite a lack of funding and resources…and actually making it happen, such as it is. This has LONG been a dream of mine; a dream that will probably never come to pass (damn you, Real Life!!), unless there’s a hefty lottery win somewhere in my future (fingers crossed)…so I certainly admire the determination and resourcefulness of the Soskas in making it happen, on their terms.
The problems lie with the script…and some of the acting. When it comes to the story, there’s potential for some damn cool stuff. For the first half of the run-time, I kept seeing the potential in the narrative and kept hoping that my predictions on the direction of the story would come to pass. The idea of this down-on-her-luck medical student (who early on shows a very solid and natural grasp on medical procedure and terminology) being lured into the service of less-then-reputable types was intriguing. There are many cool directions that premise could go in. It reminded me of David Duchovny’s 1997 flick ‘Playing God’, in which he plays a disgraced, drug-addicted doctor working for The Mob (I see remake potential there!). It’s too bad that the Soskas didn’t tighten the script up a bit more prior to shooting. The first half of the film, more or less, has a decent flow to it and does an OK job of ‘setting the scene’. It’s in the second half that the narrative noticeably falls apart. Once ‘Mary’ embraces her new vocation, everything becomes clunky. Periods of time pass, but you would never know it, if it weren’t for a character openly mentioning the passage of time. There’s also attempts at character dynamic that trip over themselves because no credible connection is set up ahead of time. The instance that most readily leaps to mind is ‘Mary’s strange, dysfunctional relationship with the fawning dirtbag ‘Billy’. They meet once for her initial interview, which plays out with a sleazy, exploitative vibe, and then the next time they encounter each other, she’s SOMEHOW managed to convince this sack of shit strip club owner to SOMEHOW kidnap ‘Dr. Grant’ (which happens off-screen), so that she can use him as a torture victim / guinea pig for her emerging anti-social surgical talents. There DEFINITELY should’ve been some scenes between the two events that set up a connection between the characters that would’ve made ‘Billy’s willingness to kidnap a doctor out-of-the-blue somewhat believable. As it is…it’s jarring. As is the ending. The 3rd Act (which actually felt like it was just part of Act 2) is a mess of poorly paced ‘things happening’, and it’s choppy as hell. Whatever ‘flow’ the movie had in the first half was noticeably lost in the second. The climax, while meant to be a twist ending (I guess), comes out of nowhere and involved a character that we knew NOTHING about, aside from mention in some disposable dialogue and a brief scene that didn’t feel like it belonged (despite making a certain amount of sense, narratively). You can tell that this movie was shot in a mere 15 days (which, in of itself, is impressive). I doubt that there was much that ended up on The Cutting Room floor, so to really make this story ‘work’, I think another week of filming probably would’ve helped them immensely, get some material of substance to help ‘fill in the blanks’ that led to the feeling of ‘chop’. And some of the acting sucked.
On the plus side, you can definitely see that the Soskas have a decent cinematic ‘eye’ and many of their shots were well-composed and lit. They definitely have a knack for gore and make-up effects (as is their background, I believe), and I think that scenes involving doses of both were handled pretty well. Should they ever be given a substantial budget, I would be genuinely curious to see what they pull off. Speaking of ‘pulling off’, I’m glad that they enlisted the talents of indie darling Katharine Isabelle for the role of ‘Mary’. Not only do they have her provocatively attired for most of the film (thanks for that!), but the lady has been acting long enough to know how to bring a certain, Real World charm and sass to characters she plays. And she’s hot as hell!…in my humble opinion. Other actors do OK with their parts, while still others feel like pure ‘Amateur Hour’. It’s a weird, unsettling mix.
All in all, I had hoped for more with ‘American Mary’. I don’t know what I was basing my expectations on…but this one fell short. The core idea is solid and had the potential to bring about a freaky and disturbing story, had the script been tightened ahead of time and better actors slotted into key roles. A little extra money and time also would’ve gone a long way too. As I mentioned earlier, I do admire the Soska Sisters for their attempts with this flick and, despite some undeniable shortcomings, it’s evident that they do have talent and the potential to turn out something really entertaining…and disturbing. Ladies, just don’t go all ‘Eli Roth’ on us. I saw the potential for that here, luckily it wasn’t realized. Restraint, when used correctly, can go a LONG way. I can’t really throw a heart-felt recommendation for this one out there…unless you’re a pervert for Katharine Isabelle (*hand goes up*), or are curious about the dawn of the Soska Sister’s film-making prowess. It’s not awful (well, in some ways it is), but it’s also not too good either. I blame the writing, some shitty acting and obviously limited resources. They did well with what they had…but they could’ve done much better, with some key tweaks to the material.
* Extra props to Jen and Sylvia Soska for their bizarre cameo as two of the more disturbed characters that ‘Mary’ encounters; a pair of twins (naturally) who want to exchange left arms and be ‘cut’ to resemble a painting of a dragon / human hybrid. Weird shit.