Thursday, October 03, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: American Mary

Twin sisters – and, according to the name of their production company and their filmography thus far, twisted sisters – Jen and Sylvia Soska attained notoriety as film students for their graduation film, a fake trailer in the Grindhouse mold that offended and delighted their peers in equal measure. Cobbling together $2,500, they expanded it into their debut feature, the unambiguously titled ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk’, which they also starred in.

I’m guessing ‘American Mary’ cost just a tad more – the production values and the presence of ‘Ginger Snaps’ icon Katharine Isabelle in the eponymous role are indicative of a budget slightly higher than two and a half grand – but the low-budget aesthetic prevails, not least in terms of subject matter. Put another way, try walking into a Hollywood producer’s office and saying, “Hey, man, I’ve got this great script, it’s a body horror picture that features rape, abduction, dismemberment and a woman who has her nipples surgically removed and her foof sewn up so she can look more like a Barbie doll,” and see if the meeting even comes to a civil conclusion let alone a multi-million dollar greenlight.

The plot: impecunious medical student Mary Mason (Isabelle) is being harassed by her bank and falling afoul of her tutor, Dr Grant (David Lovgren), for her distracted behaviour in class. Desperate to scrape some spondoolies together, she answers an ad for a masseuse at a grubby strip joint owned by Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo). During the interview, she mentions she’s a med student. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s some random guy in the basement with his face cut open whom Billy would rather not drive to the nearest A&E and have to deal with a bunch of awkward questions. Mary accepts a cash-in-hand offer to repair the damage.

Subsequently, she’s approached by Beatress (Tristan Risk), a helium voiced woman who has undergone a programme of plastic surgery with the intent of resembling Betty Boop. Beatress is acting on behalf of her friend Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg) who … well, refer to the nipples/foof/Barbie doll description in paragraph two. Mary reluctantly agrees to perform the operation and pockets a hefty payment. This is her introduction to the world of underground and strictly unregulated surgery, and she’s soon making good money. The odious Dr Grant engineers Mary’s attendance at a party where he drugs and sexually assaults her. Mary quits her studies, exploits her connections with the hired muscle at Billy’s club and has Grant kidnapped.

So far, so low-budget exploitationer. Rape/revenge, off-the-books underground surgery, and a whole subculture of surgical transfiguration. ‘Freaks’ for the post-Cronenberg generation. And while these elements of ‘American Mary’ are at the forefront, the film fizzes and the Soska sisters serve up memorably macabre moments. It makes for a fantastic first half, but unfortunately script and direction begin to meander as the narrative makes hard work of getting past the hour mark. A subplot about the police investigation into Grant’s disappearance is boilerplate stuff and lacks tension. The possibility of some footage of the assault coming to light is toyed with in one scene then never mentioned again. A potential romantic subplot where the hitherto hard-nosed all-business-like Billy suddenly starts getting all gooey over the increasingly aloof Mary comes too late to contribute to the dialectic and only slows down what has already become soporific.

The dialectic, as spelled out by the title, is Mary’s story as a commentary on the American Dream. The emptiness of achievement, the sadness of success. The unpalatable things that any success story is founded upon. ‘The Great Gatsby’ in scrubs and without any public liability insurance. Kind of.

The Soska sisters play on this theme quite effectively in places, not least in their choice of music. The Schubert and Bach arrangements of ‘Ave Maria’ – both words of the film’s title are very deliberate – suggest Mary’s innocence at the outset. The blast of heavy metal over the closing credits seal the deal on the whole “corruption thereof” subtext.

I want to like ‘American Mary’ more than I actually do. It has incredible promise and the early scenes have real bite. There’s both intelligence and an intuitive love of the horror genre behind it. Isabelle is superb, doing her best work since ‘Ginger Snaps’, and the supporting cast are more than able. The Soska sisters treat Mary’s clients empathetically, never playing it for cheap satire or the weird factor (they cameo in a memorable scene). When ‘American Mary’ works, it works. Unfortunately, there are entire stretches towards the end where it doesn’t work. Stretches where ennui seeps through the celluloid and all focus is lost.

Frustrating, then, but worthy of a cautious recommendation for its creators’ potential to put their names to something really genre-defining in (hopefully) the not too distant future.

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