Horror films can be a tough sell. There are so many of them produced under conventional means – i.e. follow the basic ‘scare’ formula – but every now and then one comes along with a flair all of its own, with a style all of its own, with a look all its own. That’s a cause for celebration – however modest – because flair, freshness, and originality aren’t exactly available with every feature. AMERICAN MARY has some wonderful touches, and – on those points alone – I think it’s definitely worth seeing. Will it be entirely satisfying? I think that depends upon your personal tastes and expectations for character development.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, this ain’t it! Still, I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Mary Mason (played by the comely Katharine Isabelle) is your typical med school student struggling to make ends meet. She’s about to be kicked out of her classes for failing to keep up on her tuition payments when she answers an advertisement at a strip club for performing erotic massage. Before the night is over, she’s swept into a world of underground surgery – fixing up a victim for the club’s owner – which only opens the door to an even stranger off-the-records business of body augmentation. Suddenly, she’s up to her elbows in blood and stitches. What’s an American Mary to do?
It’s easy to give kudos to AMERICAN MARY for attempting something original because, largely, that’s what writer/director/sisters/stars Jen and Sylvia Soska did. Unfortunately, that’s all they did, as they amped up the ‘weird for the sake of being weird’ factor but heavily scrimped on any (and I do mean ANY) emotional connection between these characters. That’s what I found a shame to the picture – I wanted to not so much ‘like’ Mary Mason (I don’t believe filmmakers ever really intend for us to like their villainous creations) but I wanted to fully ‘appreciate’ the journey she was on. However, Mary – as played by Katharine Isabelle – approaches the role pre- and post-catharsis (her rape and the subsequent descent into medical madness) absolutely devoid of any emotion. In other words, before being awakened to this weird subculture, Mary behaves mostly passionless to all things; and, after being awakened to the same, she’s still pretty much passionless. Before being raped by what must be the most downright evil portrayal of a college professor/surgeon, she’s passionless about life; and, after the assault, she’s still pretty much devoid of any feelings.
Now, maybe (and I do say MAYBE) that’s what the sisters Soska wanted – to show that Mary was always destined to be what she became, that she was never going to be a victim in her world – but, if that was the case, how is it she could still casually dismiss the only person in this world her ever cared about her – her ‘Nana’ – by simply deleting her telephone contact once she learned she died and THEN sit sulking in the dark? If she wasn’t going to be a victim of her emotions, then why the one scene sulking? If it was to convey “see, she’s only human after all,” then they’ve changed their message. If it that wasn’t the intent, then why include such a trivial plot development at all?
That’s the thing about Mary – I never know how she thinks about anything. As a character, she simply ‘does’ what she does. At times, much of the film felt like what others call ‘torture porn,’ but I never got the sense as a viewer that Mary took any delight in torturing those that she did. The only legitimate display of emotion I can recall in the entire piece was when she was almost discovered, was konked over the head by a security guard, and then got back up and beat the young man (presumably to death). While her face showed little emotion, her body betrayed her, thumping and thumping and thumping away on the body the way she did. That was the only real emotional development Mary suffered, so I’m still left wondering what it was all about.
AMERICAN MARY is produced by IndustryWorks Pictures, 430 Productions, American Mary Productions, and Twisted Twins Productions. DVD distribution is being handled through XLrator Media. As for the technical specifications, the film looks and sounds mostly very solid, though there’s one really strangely miked club sequence wherein vocal levels clearly are out of whack (not a big deal, I just like mentioning these little things when I see ‘em). The disc offers a making of short as well as a director’s commentary, if you’re so inclined.
RECOMMENDED. AMERICAN MARY is slow. At 100-plus minutes and all the glowing praise I’ve read for the film, I was really expecting something more than just ‘weird for weird’s sake.’ I don’t know that this world – this bizarre body modification culture – is real (I suspect it is), but I kept wondering what the Soska Sisters were trying to say about it since it didn’t seem particularly ‘American,’ particularly ‘Mary’ (i.e. routine, predictable), or particularly anything other than the portrait of a really unconventional class of people bordering on torture porn. When I don’t know what the message is, I don’t know what to take away from the experience; when I don’t know what to take away, then I’m left to my own devices … this time out, my devices haven’t a clue.