Thursday, October 10, 2013

Botox Is For Wimps

What are the odds that a low budget Canadian horror film can top a Law & Order: SVU episode? In one corner, we've got an undercover Ice T, one-legged surgeon, and evil sadist with mommy issues played by Miranda's husband from Sex & the City

In the other, arm transplants and heart-shaped nipples.

A battle for the ages.

Quick Plot: Mary is a poor med school student struggling to pay her mounting bills with every last resource, be it a flirty baby voice on the phone when trying to get cell charges reduced or an open call to perform at a strip joint. It's on that fateful job interview that Mary gets to use her real skills for some fast cash, healing a tortured thug and leaving an impression on the lovestruck club owner and a heavily plasticized stripper named Beatress.

With the build of Betty Boop and the vocal cutesiness of Ellen Greene's Audrey I, Beatress convinces Mary to explore a side career in the underground world of body modification. After successfully transforming an eccentric fashion designer into a life-size doll (i.e., sealed labia and nipple-less breasts), Mary's schoolwork improves to the point that she's invited to a faculty and hospital staff mixer. Living the dream!

Unfortunately, surgeons tend to party in the icky drug-and-rape-and-videotape-it variety, leaving poor Mary disgusted with the medical field. Like any bright young woman whose dreams have been demolished, she quickly ditches school, starts her own business, and practices her new techniques on the perverted doctor professor who raped her.

American Mary was made by Jen and Sylvia Soska, two young Canadians whose previous Dead Hooker In a Trunk caught a lot of attention amongst the genre community. The pair cameos as German twins with extremely unusual plastic surgery requests (arm trades, horns, standard stuff) and between that and a making-of featurette, I really, really wish they were my happy hour bar friends.

The same easily goes for star Katharine Isabelle, best known as the titular Ginger Snaps and P.J. Soles-channeling easy pickins in Freddy Vs. Jason. Mary is a tricky character, one defined primarily by her coldness and reluctance/inability to form any kind of deep relationship. Isabelle easily holds our focus (in virtually every scene) with her distant demeanor. We automatically feel for any struggling college student, and Mary has the added bonus of a cool factor that's hard to deny. We get a few small hints about Mary's human connections (and lack thereof) via a certain iPhone contact, but the writing and Isabelle's performance pull off an impressive feat in character.

I kind of loved this movie. I also kind of wanted to love it more.

See, there's so much potential in the characters and world the Soskas create that it's almost disappointing when the film seems to end prematurely. Mary's patient list alone could have spun off into its own Nip/Tuck alternative television series. I would easily watch a talk show hosted by the adorably odd Beatress (Tristan Risk) with her coke addicted daughter taking on the Andy Richter role. Put Mary front and center on The Bachelorette and BAM! ABC's got at least one new viewer.

The point is, I was completely on board for the ride that was American Mary. I just wish it wasn't over so quickly.

High Points
A movie about body modification and rape revenge doesn't seem to call for subtlety, but the Soska Sisters show a wonderfully restrained approach that works well when needed, including a stark lack of music following Mary's abuse and the clever way we get hints but never all-out visual confirmation of just how weird some of the surgeries could be

Low Points
It's not a bad thing when a movie ends and you're disappointed because you wanted more. Between Mary's eccentric patients and her own carefully calculated fury, there seems to be so much unique territory that could have been explored had the film not ended so abruptly

Okay, but I will take issue with Mary's "I'm poor" apartment, which included an awesomely modern spiral staircase and retro countertop that most hipsters WISH they could afford

Lessons Learned
Good surgeons don't make mistakes (because, presumably, killing patients would render them 'not good')

People just don't bring resumes to stripper job interviews anymore

Torturing and/or genetically modifying the human body is an act best done while wearing 6" heels

I made the mistake of splitting my viewing of American Mary (45 minutes before work, one hour a workday later) which hurt the flow of the film in a very specific way. Because I had broken up the running time, I had no idea where/when the climax would happen, meaning when it hit (no spoilers) I felt slightly empty, as if there should have been something far bigger. It's hard to tell whether that's a fault of the film or just a side effect of breaking a watch into two parts, but that aside, I heartily enjoyed this film. Katharine Isabelle gives an intriguing and unique performance aided by some fun supporting characters. The script provides a healthy balance of chuckles and gasps, and the topic of body modification is handled with respect and humor. I for one am looking forward to the Soska sisters' next venture, even if/especially since it's apparently a sequel to that Kane kal-assic, See No Evil.


  1. I thought that Isabelle is perfectly cast in the role of Mary, which it also seemed that she seems to be channelling her inner Zooey Deschanel to play, which for myself only made her all the more appealing, as she is very much like a shark both beautiful to watch as she operates in high heels and suspenders, yet equally deadly as those who cross here soon discover, especially when she truly revels just how black her dark side really is. For myself though the most over looked character it would seem in most peoples reviews is Lance (Holiday) who while largely mute and played like a disposable background character for the majority of the film, pulls out that blinding surprise monologue in one of the many surprise moments within the film.

    Easily one of my favourite films of this year and now I want to hunt down that Law and order episode I somehow missed

  2. Here's a good rule to live:

    Never miss a Law & Order episode.

    And yes, I just adored Isabelle here. She had such a great sense of detachment about her that was weirdly sexy. It's one thing to have charisma, but she found such an intriguing way to balance it.

  3. You would know... I literally laughed out loud when I saw that screencap from that cray-zee SVU episode.

    You're review is spot on. The first time I watched, it was in pieces so I couldn't fully form a solid opinion on it. It seemed disjointed. Then I watched it non-stop and realized that ending was woefully lack luster and the reason for my initial ambivalence.

    I appreciated the potential of each story running through the film but it was also kind of to its detriment to a degree. The layers work and simultaneously feel underdeveloped and don't weave as nicely as they could.

    But I really did enjoy it.

    And I'm friends with the on-phone bill collector at the beginning :)

  4. Glad to know it wasn't just me when it came to the ending. And I really do think that there were just too many potentially fascinating elements going on. You could have made a full-length movie about Beatress OR the blond OR Mary. LIke I said, it's not a bad thing when you just wish a movie was longer.

    And celebrity connection! Groovy!

  5. I saw that in the Netflix listing and was tempted, but... I am not into torture porn movies and it gave me that vibe. It sounded like it was going to be a movie entirely built around body modifications to make me squick (I am never, ever watching "The Human Centipede"). I commend your bravery!

  6. It's not too torture-y. And hey, the person who gets the worst of it REALLY deserves it, if that helps. In general, the film is much coyer about its visuals than you'd think. There are flashes of some of the modification, but save for the one case of torture-modification, there's a lot suggested and not shown. This is FAR classier than The Human Centipede!

  7. I'll check it out, then... cautiously. Sometimes I do not at all understand my Squick-ometer. I can cheerfully watch people's heads chainsawed in half in a hundred 80's slashers and laugh at fountains of blood in Evil Dead 2, yet the leg shaving scene in Cabin Fever STILL makes me shudder.

  8. I hear ya. For me, it's belly button trauma. No real rationale, but anything involving it makes me VERY uncomfortable.

  9. I just watched this tonight and generally was pretty impressed except the last act failed me completely. Still, there is a lot going for this movie and now I have to seek out Dead Hooker in a Trunk- not the one in mine, of course.

  10. I'm glad the third act failure wasn't just a result of me watching it in parts. The general consensus seems to be that its ending is just too rushed.

    It's SO easy to get all those dead hookers confused!