What You’ll Like:
- Extremely likable main character at first
- Dark and gothic-toned visual aesthetic
- Interestingly disturbed characters throughout
- Some unique and creative directorial moments
What You May Not:
- Main character becomes less relatable as film goes on
- Story and themes gradually become too uneven and disjointed
- Gore fanatics may be disappointed with lack of extreme visual content
What You’ll Remember:
- 6 reasons why you should never violate a gifted and psychotic cosmetic surgeon
American Mary is a Canadian horror film by writers and directors the Soska sisters, who many most likely will not recognize at first, as they are not significantly relevant in the film industry perhaps due to their preference for sticking with more underground film works of extreme violence and sexual deviance. Being that their most notable physical characteristics seems a taste for gothic culture, much of their work may be limited to small time distribution, and nothing that has garnered as much press in the States as this latest piece of gothic psychological dark horror and black comedy. American Mary stars Katharine Isabelle playing the title role of Mary, who has made a career out of smaller roles mostly in the horror genre. In Mary she plays the main “protagonist,” or maybe more appropriately also playing the antagonist just as equally, gives viewers a chance to take a small crash course in the world of underground gothic culture, and more specifically what can become the obsession in body modification and alterations. American Mary is a film that while can grant such access, has a tendency to ultimately forget that as a film it must be more than just a fun and even psychotic glimpse, having a habit of focusing a bit too much on its visual aesthetic and creepily intriguing character personalities which it tends to stretch in order to hold our attention.
Mary introduces us to medical student Mary Mason who is attending classes in the city of Berlin, or as the film only shows us just one actual class. Mason is initially in an educational and financial rut – falling back several months on her rent despite the helping-hand offers her Hungarian born mother, as well as having a bluntly potty-mouthed professor who is mostly hard on her case due to him seeing her as having real potential, so he refuses to see such potential wasted in any way. It is obvious she does hold a love for her future medical career, mostly shown to us as she practices medical sewing procedures on raw poultry during her free time. Accepting her current fate with a nervous ease, Mason decides a good idea for fast cash would be to apply at a local strip club, where she meets with sketchy jerk owner Billy, played by Antonio Cupo. At first, and rather quickly during her job “interview” (which basically means showing her figure off in sexy lingerie) Billy decides to take advantage of Mason’s medical experience by offering her five-thousand dollars in cash to do a quick job, for which he takes her down to the club’s basement and asks her to sew up a profusely bleeding tortured young man, the cause of which is unknown. Taking the offer, Mason readily finishes the procedure but not without being completely shocked at what had just occurred. Vowing to herself to never repeat such an act, Mason is contacted by a young woman named Beatress, whose introduction gives us our initial taste into this macabre yet darkly artistic vivid world of what for some can become an obsessed psychosis in body modification, most especially for those who have a flourish of financial means to make it happen.
Beatress comes off as a sweet Betty Boop cartoon for real life but longingly lonely considering how attached she becomes with wanting to become closer to Mason, at a more personal friend level. Beatress herself has had extensive cosmetic procedures throughout her life considering her face has been done so many times she looks less like a person and more like a sadistic plastic doll; Mason herself figures out Beatress’s goal to actually become a real life iteration of the Betty Boop character, an obsession also shared by Beatress’s friend Ruby, who was the point of both women contacting Mason. Ruby desires to look like a real life doll, where she can live the rest of her life lacking any semblance of female body parts to achieve her dream of being just as unsexualized as these dolls. This would mean asking Mason to perform a procedure to remove her nipples and closing up her vaginal area as much a possible, without word to her husband of course. It is at this point of the film where Mason peaks to her most likable, and to this meaning to a high degree; her charmingly sarcastic and semi-shy demeanor displays her as someone who doesn’t mean to cause any trouble, yet harbors enough confidence to not be intimidated by any unexpected situation, granted they are within tasteful boundaries and not sewing up hacked and tortured people. Actress Katharine Isabelle grabs control of this role and performs it with near smooth expert efficiency, which makes her all the more relatable – the only seemingly normal person within this depraved world of what could be seen as mentally disturbed circus freaks – Mason will easily have enough wit and charm to put a smile on your face. Mary‘s script presents her as this character despite the questionable decisions she’s making as she delves deeper into what lies ahead; considering despite how hesitant she is at first, Mason also seems to be obtaining a taste and appreciation for the sheer artistry of body modification. Slowly but surely, Mason is unintentionally making a name for herself in this culture, and it is here that her work for a local hospital resident student is becoming more noticed by her higher ups, namely her supervising doctor who soon invites her to a late night party.
Where Mary is its strongest in terms of character development, pacing and plot intrigue is during this first portion of the film, yet once Mason discovers the truly perverse sexual deviance of these resident doctors at the mentioned house party, where women are brought solely to be drugged and sexually exploited or raped, Mason herself falls victim by the hands of the very same med school professor who had been giving her such a hard time in the beginning. Once Mason has had this traumatic experience the script then does an almost 180 degree turn on its conventions in plot organization; while it is understandable that from here on in Mason would turn to a degree of coldness in her demeanor and personality, the film simply does this too quickly, and it is from this point that the audience will begin to lose relatability to the character as she begins to delve so far into this underground culture that she quits med school and takes on body modification full time, unlicensed, but financially highly profitable. Gone are her days of not being able to make rent or worry about money in the least. In perhaps the only portion of the film that truly earns its status as a horror film, is her revenge on the professor who raped her, trapping him in a secret hideout where she proceeds to use her medical knowledge to amputate all of his limbs, split his tongue, and even unspoken acts to his genitals which are never made known in any detail. In a scene reminiscent of the Saw films, Mason hangs her victim through hooks in his back, limbless, and even with his mouth sewn shut, deciding to torture him for however long she sees fit. Now with a detective investigating the professor’s disappearance, Mason must now manage her life as an underground cosmetic surgeon as well as keep her grotesque secret.
Beginning with this revenge plot, the film turns to different directions, all of which work well enough on their own as subplots, but have a tendency to not lead to any real character development or satisfying conclusions. Yet though the Soska sisters do display some interesting direction, editorial work, creepily slick camera angles and shots, and good overall pacing which will never get the viewer bored, they seem too reliant on mild humor and the visuals of general body mod weirdo fanatics, never giving us any main characters we can actually come to relate to or care that much about. Sure, Mason may have been incredibly likeable at first, but too soon after does she become cold and distant, with an ego that blew up overnight due to her new found place of royalty as sought out underground surgeon, ultimately making her less likeable (and at times even unlikeable), where the story ends up not even having a workable protagonist, but a main antagonist as well considering one really cannot see Mason as the “good guy” considering everything she does, most notably her sadistic revenge on the rapist professor. Regarding this point, the film doesn’t even seem to have any real antagonist or villain, hence there is a lack of character conflict considering the police investigator doesn’t hold much of a presence. This may just walk the line of ‘man vs. himself,’ that ‘man’ being Mason, and how far she is able to go, albeit however far-fetched. I mean talk about overkill, even fellow rape victim Lisbeth from 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would perhaps want to talk Mason down. But more than the act, the fact that such a shy and overall sweet well-meaning young ambitious doctor would suddenly turn from getting sick from sewing up a tortured man, to indulging in psychotic revenge torture and even murder just doesn’t really make sense, despite however much gore fans will appreciate the visuals of this type of victimization. Visuals that show us the after-effect but not the actual process – we never really get to see any sort of graphic psycho torture the film implied to have in the way it was advertised, but instead see only results. The surgery scenes are pretty tame themselves as well; honestly your grinch truly saw more gore in older F/X episodes of the medical drama Nip/Tuck. It may seem as if the sibling directors could have used this opportunity to instead enhance Mary and her own character study, but besides scenes of her taking on new clientele, as well as her stripper club colleagues taking part in their own shenanigans, Mary just becomes too stone-faced to portray any sort of the confusion, insecurity, uncertainty, or even sarcasm that we fell in love with about her during the film’s first act. To put it another way, we end up paying more attention to Mason’s acts rather than Mason herself, following the continuing story for its visual cinematography more than the characters who make up its whole. Even smaller ideas such as Billy’s eventual crush on Mason gives us some more creative direction but ends up leading to nothing. In short, there are a lot of ways in which Mary‘s script could have been revised in order to take advantage of potentially good plot points it hints at but never explores or even concludes. While the actors do put on good performances, the personalities they’re given start to become less comedic and intriguing, and more cardboard and stiff, yet still keeping up their beautiful looks as the film seems to later prefer its style over its substance, falling in love with how much it looks without much regard as to how its audience is made to feel. Add to this an ending that has nowhere near the impact it maybe hoped to, and we end up with a fairly fun, but unfulfilling film that has enough ideas to make itself work, but no real consideration in expanding these ideas that would have given us the much more gripping and thrilling experience it seemed it so wanted to have on paper.
There is a commentary track from the Soska sisters as well as one theatrical trailer. Besides this we get one 17-minute making-of feature that is not so much a produced featurette with any cast or crew interviews as we are accustomed, but instead a straight documentary-style as it was filmed with a low-res handheld camera. It offers no interviews even by the person shooting the footage, or any actors or directors even so much as saying anything into the camera. We see a few scenes being shot, and some of the make-up work done in the trailers, all while just overhearing the cast and crew conversation. So unfortunately fans will not get to know anyone who was in the film, but doing so could have been interesting, especially from the Soska sisters themselves and their intentions or thoughts.
Graphics and Sound:
On the visual front, Mary does look rather appealing, coming off with a very smooth picture with very minimal visual distortion. While the overall look seems to be a little too high in its sharpness, giving the film a mild “rough” look, colors are all perfectly balanced and vivid regardless of the TV picture settings. Putting this in a “movie” mode will do well to smooth out the mild rough spots, but the picture on other settings are virtually identical. Now in the sound department things become a bit uneven overall. Initially, the film’s volume comes off quite loud, even for a blu-ray movie. The voices themselves are brought so much to the forefront that one may turn down the volume a notch simply due to the clarity of the dialogue itself. What is strange then is the fact that at random times, the voice clarity just shoots down, making things sound a bit too muffled to easily understand, and it happens quite often. In terms of balance, the voices in comparison to the effects and music stand out a bit too much, but it is still a relief because typically voices on blu-rays always need to be more clear, yet here it is just not necessary. Despite this unevenness there really is no other issue with the sound quality of the disc.
American Mary is a horror film that has a tone working to strike for the psyche more than it does to indulge you in what seemed like it would with bloody splatterfest guts and gore, and for the most part accomplishes what it sets out to do in telling its story. What begins as a black comedy morphs slowly into a dark psychological thriller with minimal thrills, giving us a unique series of characters that work well to bring us into this glimpse of such a broodingly obsessed, but beautifully artistic underworld where such acts of body manipulation must be appreciated for their very acquired taste. Although the culture of the world itself is clearly separated from the revenge plots that utilize the tools of the culture in Mary, the culture has more to say about itself and ultimately leaves the viewer longing for further plot exploration. Pacing, visuals, gorgeous sexy women, and a slick soundtrack are enough to hold your attention, despite the lack of real hardcore violence potentially deterring gore fanatics, but unfortunately one cannot help but notice the uneven scripting which does lots to hurt how much we actually feel for these characters and care for them. In the end, you’ll end up feeling how much things could have improved if plot elements were fleshed out, explored, and actually concluded, giving us a film with more characterization and less stylized visuals. Without the magic that Katharine Isabelle brings to this film, however much less charming it became towards its end, American Mary would have been a lot worse, so she is definitely a saving grace and one actress you’ll hope to see more of. It still works for a fun Friday night distraction, but maybe only if paired up with a better film following it. I’d say 2.5 split tongues out of 4.