After their debut feature, the unmistakably titled Dead Hooker in a Trunk, I felt like big things might be in the future for twin Canadian filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska. I was a fan of that film as a raw and bombastic piece of grindhouse fluff, and I could see them continuing to push the envelope while finding fun and unique ways to present carnage.
I underestimated them.
I came to this realization tonight while finally checking out their follow up feature, American Mary - which is conveniently available on DVD and blu-ray all over North America for the first time. The sisters show a dramatic growth in their writing and their direction, and the result is a new kind of horror film that seems endlessly fascinating to me right now.
Katharine Isabelle stars as the title character, a medical student who wants to be a surgeon until her professional progress is derailed by a devastating act. Mary finds a home in the unique underground scene of body modification, working out of a seedy adult club that seems like the real world version of Hellraiser III and making new friends and enemies along the way.
Mary is a special character. Part of this is because the actress is so talented - Isabelle is hitting all the right notes and hasn't been better since her breakout performance in Ginger Snaps 13 years ago - and part of this is because the character fills such a unique dramatic role. Mary exists in the film as both a victim and a villain, allowing Isabelle to recapture the feral energy that made her so dangerous in Ginger Snaps while alternately making her a sympathetic being that is something of a fallen angel.
The film is open to plenty of interpretations when it comes to our characters, starting with Mary and trickling out to all of the souls she touches. The club's seedy manager also seems to have a sweet affection for Mary. A modified stripper with an affection for Betty Boop initially creeps Mary out, but becomes the film's most sincere and altruistic character as the story moves forward. A slew of patients come through Mary's door - including the directors, who offer a sinister cameo - but the viewer never seems to be forced to any judgment of these characters' worth.
The film's willingness to show us a strange world without pushing narrow-minded values is perhaps the most fantastic thing about American Mary. The Soskas offer plenty of blood and push plenty of visual boundaries, but the answers to questions about what is right or wrong are left up to us. I've already read a few discussions in which viewers debate what some characters deserved and what other characters did well, and I can tell that I'm going to love seeing people's reactions to each character in the film after they experience American Mary for themselves.
It's this restraint that really makes me appreciate what the filmmakers have done here. The Twisted Twins have brought back the same chaotic energy and unpredictable flair that made their first film so much fun, but they've added an artistic touch that pushes American Mary into a fascinating place. I'm not sure everything fits together perfectly as the parts of the film crash off of each other in the final act, but the events that unfold are never dull and mostly thought provoking. Combined with a powerhouse lead performance and a eerie visual style, American Mary is a must-see piece of original horror that should propel its directors and its star to greater heights.