The Soska Sisters’ ambitious, yet flawed, debut feature Dead Hooker in a Trunk was just enough to get their feet in the door, something to be grateful for considering the impressive cult caricature that is their second feature film: American Mary.
Katharine Isabelle stars as Mary, a dedicated and gifted young medical student struggling to make ends meet. After she responds to a Job advert for a local strip joint she is forced to use her skills, under shady circumstance, for the club owner. The result is $5000 and the promise she will keep her mouth shut. Soon, news of Mary’s skills reaches the black market and she begins to spiral into an underworld infatuated with body modification. Whatever needs done “Bloody Mary” can do… for a price.
Everything that was perhaps amateur about Dead Hooker is sorted in American Mary, a film that is, for all its guts and glory, a fairly muted affair centered around a great principal idea. That’s not said to muddy the sisters’ use of gore (since this is a film at points slathered with the stuff) but the main point is that it doesn’t rush into being a horror film. At the very least, that it doesn’t seem too interested in being slash-happy Friday night fun. Too often horror films dwindle in the plot department; letting any terror miss-fire because we don’t actually give a shit about what’s going on. Here the Twisted Twins have parodied American fantasies, hinting that the darker side of life is almost unavoidable, in this: a grotesque romance on the collision point of sex, money, and the American Dream.
Isabelle is largely to thank for the success of the film, having spent plenty of time being fodder for serial killers (Freddy vs. Jason comes nostalgically to mind) she gets a shot at being an unexpected but formidable anti-hero. A careful balance of stone-cold calculating and basic human guilt hedges in the possibility of the ridiculous. If there’s any gripe it’s that she’s not given enough scenes to explore the more guilt-ridden side of Mary, to really flesh out the other side of a charming and horrific performance.
Very quickly the film reveals a slick black heart wrapped in blood, mayhem, and sex. The Soska’s obviously have a direction for their brand of visceral charm, but at times this seems too recycled. Moments that should have been truly deranged are lost in translation, the shock factor reined-in by repetition. Stunningly realized cult imagery rears its triumphant head at numerous points, proving the Soska’s have the capacity for impressive mise en scene. An example? Isabelle, decked in lingerie, performing surgery in a strip club basement jumps to mind. Its a great, condemning, portrait for the satirical needs of American Mary.
Plot-wise the film is pretty fluid, a nice birth-of-the-monster origin story makes the first half a hoot, but there seems to be some trouble with which direction to take the film once Mary reaches a crucial turning point. But even then, a femsploitation revenge film starring Katharine Isabelle turns out to be pretty fun.
American Mary takes the passion and rage of a revenge film mixes it with modern gothic, anchors it with a great central performance, wraps the whole sordid affair in a slick and black shiny wrapping then lets it spin into an urban legend. Perhaps the spinning goes a little too far and some wobbly decisions leave the film on a downer, but at this rate of improvement the Twisted Twins’ next piece should be genius.