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‘American Mary’ Review: Tasteful Torture Porn

Posted by on May 19, 2013 at 7:02 pm
She doesn't want to kill you, she just wants to split your tongue and cut your penis open. Wait...that's actually a lot worse.

She doesn’t want to kill you, she just wants to split your tongue and cut your penis open. Wait…that’s actually a lot worse.

The sibling filmmaking duo of Jen and Sylvia Soska has done something interesting with their second feature: they’ve created a tasteful torture porn flick. Don’t get me wrong, American Mary is still a grotesque and disconcerting movie. It happens to have some redeeming qualities, however.

American Mary follows Mary Mason (indie horror queen Katharine Isabelle), a broke and disenchanted medical student who enters the seedy world of black market body modification. When we first encounter the ambitious Mary, she’s slicing a raw chicken open and sewing it back together. Apparently it’s good extracurricular homework for someone seeking to become a surgeon. However, medical school tuition has left her penniless and no one is around to help cover the cost of her loft apartment.

Mary soon hits Craigslist and finds a job opening at a strip club. She looks like the reincarnation of Bettie Page, so it makes sense that, rather than apply for minimum wage fast food jobs, she would immediately go for stripper pay. On the night of her “interview,” she meets the club owner, a sleazy thug who dresses like Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Opportunity knocks when one of his employees slices a man to ribbons. He doesn’t want the guy to die in his club, so he pays Mary to sew the victim up.

It works and that brings Mary to the attention of the club’s patrons. However, they want her to perform unethical, extreme plastic surgery. The operations these people are willing to undergo are more horrific than anything a slasher movie villain could come up with. But black market body modification pays considerably better than stripper wages, and soon Mary is performing gag-inducing operations on desperate clients in order to make ends meet. One woman wants her genitals sewn up so that she can look like a de-sexualized human doll; twin sisters (the Soska sisters themselves) want their left arms removed and transplanted on each other so they can be closer; another man has his penis split.

American Mary gets a lot mileage out of the fact that people actually go in for this stuff. For the past few decades, slasher movies have become increasingly stupid, and that’s because torture porn directors have felt the need to make their set pieces increasingly grotesque and improbably elaborate. However, some of the stuff Mary does is extreme even by horror movie standards, and it’s all the creepier because I’m sure there’s some actual truth buried in this feature. I suppose Hollywood can’t quite keep up with the creepiness of the real world.

However, American Mary begins to suffer as the Soska twins attempt to transform their initial pitch black comedy into a legitimate slasher movie. The movie works when Mary is slicing up voluntary clients. Early sequences in the film play out more like a character study or a comedy. Katharine Isabelle is considerably more talented than the actresses that typically appear low budget horror fare, and she handles the material deftly. She’s exceptional at deadpan comedy, and her initial reactions to the twisted souls who come to her begging for extreme help contain an appropriate mixture of disgust and wry humor.

An entire film could have been based upon this penniless, unlicensed surgeon performing skin-crawling work in exchange for thousands of dollars in cash, but the Soska sisters soon turn her into a psychotic villain. The plot contrivance that leads to Mary’s transformation into a scalpel-wielding psychopath is improbable even for a horror movie; the rapid psychological transformation Mary undergoes is even more jarring.

Eventually Mary becomes another slasher movie villain, and it’s a shame, because the first 45 minutes of American Mary are almost perfect. American Mary could have been a near-perfect horror movie if it had been freed of the conventions of the genre. Instead, the Soska sisters decide to play to their base, and they end up undermining their own film.

Still, the movie works. For all of its flaws, American Mary is utterly unlike any horror movie I’ve ever seen. The film manages to be prescient by capitalizing on a bizarre cultural trend, and it manages to be watchable by concealing a lot; this is a surprisingly tasteful flick that horrifies mostly through implication rather than through repulsive visuals. The movie runs completely off the rails in its final act, but I can’t help but enjoy the movie up until that point. The Soska twins definitely have talent, and I look forward to what they’ll bring to the genre next.

7/10 FleshEatingZipper

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