Warning: Woman Wields a Scalpel
By ANDY WEBSTER – May 30th, 2013
“I don’t think it’s really fair that God gets to choose what we look like on the outside, do you?” says Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk) in “American Mary,” a new horror movie from the twins Jen and Sylvia Soska. So Beatress has had work done. Lots of work: “14 different surgeries to get me to look like this” — a nightmare Betty Boop, with a synthetic, cartoonish face to supplement her ’50s homemaker dresses and a Kewpie-doll voice uttering the occasional obscene epithet.
Beatress is just one fascinating player in this compelling film about appearances and their manipulation. The title character is Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle), a student in need of fast cash to complete her coursework in amputation surgery. Applying for employment as a masseuse at a seedy strip joint, she soon finds herself operating on men her thug boss (Antonio Cupo) has brutalized in the basement. When word gets out about Mary’s knack with a scalpel, the “body-mod community,” as Beatress calls it (as in body modification), seeks her out for overhauls and touch-ups.
Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg), a Jocelyn Wildenstein in the making, asks Mary to excise her nipples and minimize her genitalia. Ruby seeks the neutered look of a doll, because “a doll can be naked and never feel shy or sexualized or degraded.” Mary accommodates her, returns home and vomits, only to apply makeup in the next scene.
Who drives Ruby to such lengths? Her husband, for one, and probably men like Mary’s professor (David Lovgren), who drugs and rapes Mary at a party. He soon involuntarily discovers Mary’s skills firsthand, as she recites the procedures she’s considering subjecting him to: tongue splitting, implantation, teeth filing, genital alteration and amputation.
We’ve seen medical gear — gurneys, rubber aprons, cutlery — in myriad horror movies, “The Human Centipede,” “Dead Ringers” and “Audition” among them. But maybe not metaphors like the caged bird Mary keeps, in a nod to Jean-Pierre Melville, or her uncommon path to self-sufficiency (at one point she literally sews up her own wound), a transformation skillfully elucidated by Ms. Isabelle.
This film — the second from the Soskas, and shot in their hometown, Vancouver, British Columbia — combines gore, quiet dread, feminist conviction and a visual classicism, often using a red palette, with impressive, unbelabored dexterity. (In an amusing sequence, the Soskas play goth twins who want to surgically exchange their left arms.)
Mary’s boss, in a weak romantic overture, invites her on a road trip to Los Angeles, mecca of movies, artifice and plastic surgery. She resists making a commitment. But it’s just a matter of time until that city comes courting the Soskas.
“American Mary” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Extreme makeovers.
Opens on Friday in New York; Los Angeles; Austin, Tex.; Chicago; and San Diego.
Written and directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska; director of photography, Brian Pearson; edited by Bruce Mackinnon; music by Peter Allen; production design by Tony Devenyi; produced by Evan Tylor and John Curtis; released by XLrator Media and IndustryWorks Pictures. In Manhattan at the Village East, Second Avenue at 12th Street, East Village. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.
WITH: Katharine Isabelle (Mary Mason), Antonio Cupo (Billy Barker), Tristan Risk (Beatress Johnson), David Lovgren (Dr. Grant), Paula Lindberg (Ruby Realgirl), Clay St. Thomas (Dr. Walsh), John Emmet Tracy (Detective Dolor) and Twan Holliday (Lance Delgreggo).