Rape and revenge films often strive for feminist empowerment over the male violators of the protagonists’ womanhood. The power coming to these wronged leading ladies after the perpetrators’ forced penetration on them. The female gaze is in full effect here in the Canadian production ‘American Mary’ as the title character Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle in a brilliant turn) finds her strength in her furious anger right in the aftermath of her heinous drug raped ordeal. This leads straight away to a brutal cold merciless drawn out revenge on the vile monster that has caused her pain as she makes him nothing more than a helpless object play toy of torture for her cruel vengeful wrath. Rendered powerless just as she was for his depraved pleasure.
This swift retribution serves as her realization to her true calling in life when a chance situation just previous to her transition into a woman not to be fucked with brings out a talent that turns out to be a very profitable business in providing her unique skills to the clientele of a bizarre underground sub-culture. However, tragically Mary’s newfound strength and niche in life comes at the price of her morality due to the torment of her trauma. Completely removed, her empathy for people is forever lost and her newfound profession brings deadly consequences.
Mary (Isabelle) is a medical student training to be a surgeon a field in which she has a gifted talent. However, she is flat broke struggling to make ends meet unable to pay the bills for her apartment so she applies for night work at a strip club. During her interview there telling the club’s owner Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) that she is studying to be a surgeon he takes her down to the basement presenting to her a man who has just been tortured offering her $5,000 to save his life. Desperately needing the money, she agrees to do the surgery. She returns home in panic and is disgusted by what she has just done.
A week later, she receives a visit from Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk in the other stand out performance here) an unforgettably unique character and a stripper at the club who has had herself surgically modified to resemble Betty Boop. She offers Mary a large sum of money an offer Mary knows is too good to turn down despite her reservations about the ethics involved to perform surgery on Betty’s friend Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg) who is also dedicated to the art of body modification. In this case, the completion of her work in dollification to look like a living Barbie doll by having her nipples and the labia of her vagina removed. Despite these characters’ freakish appearances, the screenplay approaches them in a non-judgemental non-exploitive manner never once poking fun at them fleshing them out and treating them as real human beings from a sympathetic viewpoint.
During her hospital residency, Mary is invited to a party with several other male surgeons. It is here that she is drugged and raped by her former lecturer the despicable Dr. Grant (David Lovgren) in an excruciatingly harrowing scene. Soon afterwards, she uses her connections at the strip club to hire enforcers to kidnap him and exacts her sadistic revenge. Dropping out of medical school, she goes into the full-time work of body modification surgery in which she becomes renowned for her craft. The person she was before though is lost, she is pursued by Detective Dolor (John Emmet Tracy) investigating the disappearance of Dr. Grant, Billy starts to fall in love with her and her skills are not appreciated by all inciting dangerous anger.
Following-up their ultra-low budget but high-spirited good time debut ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk’ (2009), writers and directors The Soska Sisters Jen and Sylvia’s softmore effort at first unravels at a slow burn pace in a character study piece that then explodes with a punch to the gut impact. Incorporating sub-genres of the aforementioned rape and revenge and body horror it adds lashings of black comedy to the proceedings perfectly timed at the right moments not corrupting the seriousness of matters in an overall unconventional tone. Beautifully shot, the movie fully realizes the new world Mary has found herself in.
Mary Mason is a complex and evolving character played with such conviction by Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps trilogy) in a powerhouse performance and is one of the best leading female roles I have seen in a modern horror film for sometime. A wonderfully written character, her portrayal starts as a naïve medical student playing by the rules to achieve her goals but is crippled by the financial woes that it costs to see her through her determined journey that introduces her to this strange sub-culture. It is these rules that then betray her when playing the game forcing her to operate outside this norm and strike back at it with a defying vengeance. This underground way of life considered not normal by the male dominated society she tried to fit in with but rejected her by defiling her treats her much better giving her a supreme sense of worth with her new powers - respect and a true belonging. Therefore, what is normal and what is not? Although, her violent actions blur the line between what is wrong and what is right on the moral compass.
The only thing that disappointed me about the movie is that it does not take advantage of some of its subject matter in not using the full potential that the material has to deliver a visceral intense extreme experience in explicit nastiness. For example, the brutality of Mary’s revenge on Dr. Grant is done off camera with close-up shots of the illustrations plastered around her apartment of what she plans to do to him taking place of what we see rather than letting us view the actual mutilations. We do though see the results in photographs and when Mary pays him a visit in a warehouse she is keeping him in, as she continues her work on his suffering. This is just a minor gripe really, as there are sequences of a graphically gory nature when the film delves into its other body horror elements with the procedures of the body modification on Mary’s clients of this underworld. Although, filmed in a matter of fact fashion these depictions never once come over as exploitative at the expense of these freaky but real people. The Twisted Twins Jon and Sylvia have fantastic cameos as such characters.
‘American Mary’ is dark, funny, uncomfortably horrifying and tragic in equal proportions mixing up an intriguing and provocative cocktail. It has a genuine heartfelt emotional lending to the story a pathos that is rare these days in modern genre cinema but Jen and Sylvia Soska have pulled it off nicely. Two features in and The Twisted Twins are proving to be an endlessly interesting filmmaking duo.
*** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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