American Mary – The Soska Twins take on Bod.Mod. (film review)

I’m not really a horror buff, but I’ll watch one when its good. A great horror film was Franju’s Eyes without a Face, the story of a surgeon gone mad in his attempts to restore his daughters disfigured face by stealing the faces of young women he murders. The surgeon gone mad theme has became a frequent and strong one in the world of horror.  It existed before Franju of course, with Mary Shelly and the Frankenstein story among others.

American Mary is another wonderful twist on this tale, with cult written all over it.  This time the surgeon is a young med student named Mary, who is struggling to keep up with her many financial obligations while she works hard (and reaps the benefit of) being an excellent student. Broke and unable to pay her student loans, she decides after much deliberation to perform as a stripper because the money promises to be good, and the job description assures her there is no sex involved. During her interview, after seeing her resume, her new boss decides she’d be wasted up on the stage and gets her to help him downstairs with an illegal operation. This then leads to her gaining some fame and notoriety within the body modification community. Suddenly there is plenty of work and plenty of money.

However, one doesn’t deal with people who have themselves surgically enhanced to look permanently like Betty Boop or get their vagina closed over in order to look more like Barbie without experiencing a couple of dark nights of the soul.  Soon Mary is asking herself some important ethical questions, which get answered by the good behaviour of the Bod. Mod. community and the poor behaviour of the medical establishment. (you’ll make a great slasher says one particularly slimy professor) Mary (fantastically played by Katharine Isabelle of Ginger Snaps fame) finds her circumstances, a particularly harrowing experience and her new clientèle changing her inside. As Mary has to deal with the deeper extremes of life, as she becomes more dependent upon her own darkness to get her through her tasks both requested and self assigned, her  persona becomes more withdrawn and the distance between herself and others more emphasized  As she modifies bodies, her internal self undergoes a dramatic modification also.

While this film might use the  erotically charged darkness of the body modification community, there is nothing but respect shown in the many visitations upon that group. Many of the images we see are “real” people from the community, happy to out themselves for a film that treats them with so much respect. There is no CGI used.  These film makers are purists.

American Mary is a beautifully shot, wonderfully written second feature by the gorgeous Jen and Sylvia Soska twins with the creative audacity to cast their own father performing an operation on them and calling himself Dr Mengela. I attended a premier of the film in Sydney last night and the Soska twins were present. In attendance were many fans of Dead Hooker in a Trunk, a grindhouse exploitation film that the twins wrote, directed, produced and stared in, in 2009.  This is their second feature and although I haven’t seen the first film (it does look great on the trailer) you can immediately see American Mary is a huge leap forward for the “twisted twins”.  These girls have brains and they wanted to make a good film – the quality of this film reminds us all there are too few women making great horror films, and that is part of the problem with horror. At one point in the night Sylvia, laughing said “I can make a Hostel, I can make a Saw, I can pull a film like that out of my ass while drunk. We wanted to make something better.” Together the women describe the film as more like a European or Asian horror flick. And this comes through in the end result.

For the Soska twins this film was something they had to come up with in response to genuine studio interest after Dead Hooker. Its one of those stories they relate casually as if faffing around on the internet led them to this film as an end result. But what their joyful casual happiness can’t hide is the many years of film devotion the twins have obviously shared.

They have that mysterious “Twin” quality, finishing each others sentences, dressing alike  looking almost indistinguishable from each other, cohabiting their individual space with the safety in numbers the singular of us can only envy.  The love of horror genre surrounds them and their passion and focus and intelligence for years of non discovery imbues every clever shot in American Mary. One gets a very strong feeling these women have been almost studying this shtick they have going, and they are finally ready to unleash it on the world. It was exciting to be near them last night. They have that eternal quality that promises so many brilliant things to come.  Ultimately they told us that American Mary is analogous to their own experience of working in the film industry.  There will be great things to come from these women. One definitely gets the feeling they are just getting started.