January 28, 2013

American Mary (2012)



"The story follows medical student, Mary Mason, as she becomes increasingly broke and disenchanted with the surgical world she once admired. The allure of easy money sends Mary into the world of underground surgeries which ends up leaving more marks on her than her so called 'freakish' clientele."

If you watch a lot of horror movies, you'll already know that originality is not their strong point. Even without the blatant ripoffs and clones, the homages and formulas have become de rigueur in the genre. Thus, it comes as no great surprise that Jen and Sylvia Soska's "American Mary", in spite of aiming to be more than a horror movie, is hardly the most original story either.

What lifts "American Mary" out of the ordinary is the fantastic performance by Katharine Isabelle who you'd be forgiven for thinking hasn't really done a lot apart from bit parts since "Ginger Snaps". Maybe it's because she refuses to get naked (which is a shame). As Mary Mason, she provides a multi-faceted character who adds more charisma than the Soska sisters could possibly have imagined in their hastily cobbled together screenplay. This isn't a dig at the Soska sisters, who are currently milking their 15 minutes of fame for all that it's worth (just as any of us would), but a statement of fact in praise of Katharine Isabelle's talents. If you hire such a beautiful actress and let her make the part her own, the task of creating a decent film is 90% done for you no matter how simple and derivative your story may be.


Mary Mason isn't the most likeable heroine though. She either has a mild form of Asperger's syndrome or she's a ruthless psychopath just waiting for something to set her off. Mary's narcissism is a huge indication of the latter. Arguably, the Soskas barely tried to write more into her since any attempts to view Mary as the empowered feminist horror icon of their promotional Q & A sessions are dashed by inconsistencies. As far as horror movie anti-heroes go, "Bloody Mary" certainly has a place alongside Patrick Bateman since both are victims even when they think they're winning, but to read any more into her than that would be silly. Maybe that's why the movie is called "American Mary". I'm still not sure about that detail though, and I've digressed.

A British horror-loving friend of mine on Twitter recently described "American Mary" as a lot of style over substance. Not being mean, but it's actually less than that if you deconstruct it. "American Mary" is a film which relies heavily on Katharine Isabelle's looks and some very neat props from MastersFX to distract the viewer from the competent yet rather ordinary camerawork and thinnest of rape-revenge plots. While it's all very stylish and sexy, the journey from A to B is as predictable as they come with more than a few nods to the movies which inspired it.

Without spoiling it too much for you, "American Mary" can be described as a hybrid of "Boxing Helena", "Hard Candy", "I Spit on Your Grave", the "Nip/Tuck" TV series, and dozens of grittier Hallmark channel movies. Specifically, if you've ever wondered what "Nip/Tuck" might have turned into with another season which focused on nothing but "extreme body modification", "American Mary" is the answer. It has to be said, however, that "Nip/Tuck" covered the same ground several times anyway with just as much blood and gore.


Canadians have always been great "copyists" when it comes to horror movies. As derogatory as it sounds, there's also a compliment buried in there. Even going back to "Ginger Snaps" (which is merely "The Wolf Man" with the genders and ages of the protagonists changed), there's never been a completely original idea from any of Canada's filmmakers except (perhaps) David Cronenberg. Ironically, "American Mary" owes a lot to Cronenberg, but not entirely in a good way. As someone who isn't the greatest fan of his work other than "The Fly" remake, I would call many of his "body horror" movies "style over substance" too.

Unlike David Cronenberg's early movies, "American Mary" looks great. Money clearly goes further when shooting in Vancouver with an ensemble cast of TV actors although (without knowing the exact figures) I'd guess that the Soskas finagled a substantial amount of investment. The last thing you can fault "American Mary" for is being some kind of low-budget "indie" dreck because the production values are very good indeed. Despite taking only 15 days to shoot, this isn't the product of some beered-up, redneck friends in their backyard with a couple of Jazz cams. Professionals were involved in this every step of the way, and it shows.

I wish one of this team of veterans had spoken up about the contrived, downbeat and very disappointing ending which feels like a cheat, but at the end of the day, it's the directors' decision. There are so many ways that the story could have gone to make it more satisfying, but I think the Soska sisters chose the wrong one. Watching the movie again reveals the placement of enough warning signs for the more observant viewer to guess that things are inevitably going to end very badly yet not exactly how. On the plus side, there won't be a sequel. I think we've all had enough of sequelitis to last us several lifetimes, so thanks for that.


Having seen their previous movie, "Dead Hooker in a Trunk" (2009), and noted their own lack of acting skills, I don't think that the Soskas are worthy of the overpraise being heaped upon them at conventions. Nobody is. Generally speaking, horror convention people are mostly sycophantic assholes with their own agendas so you can't trust them any more than a crow with a beak full of cheese should believe the compliments of a fox. While I would like to say that Jen and Sylvia seem to know their stuff when it comes to characterisation, storytelling and pacing, their various interviews give away that the actors themselves worked with them to get things right. In many ways, this flexibility is to be applauded, but in others, it reeks of inexperience and makes me wonder if they'll ever get this lucky again.

The Soskas seem like a nice enough pair and I wish them the best. I also sincerely hope that they make more movies, but unless they continue to employ Katharine Isabelle as eyecandy and muse, it's unlikely that they will become a major force in the horror industry. Realistically, if Lucky McKee and Angela Bettis can't make it, what chance have they got? Even if they don't get any further, "American Mary" is still a solid (but not groundbreaking or innovative) genre entry and one which I highly recommend to fans of Katharine Isabelle everywhere.

It may have nothing new to offer except as a means to ogle Katharine Isabelle looking sexier than she ever has before, but that's still reason enough for "American Mary" to earn a place in the "Video Vault". Yes, I'm a pervert and a hypocrite, get over it.

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