American Mary (2012)

Starring: Katherine Isabelle, Antonion Cupo, Tristan Risk, Paula Lindberg, David Lovgren, Clay St Thomas, John Emmet Tracy

Directed by: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Katherine Isabelle as American Mary

Rarely has a film divided my Twitter timeline as effectively as American Mary. Brilliant, twisted body horror or overrated, misandric load of rubbish? I was about to find out...

Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle) is studying to be a surgeon. Like all self-respecting students, she's broke and, as a last resort to pay off her debts, auditions as a dancer in a go-go bar. But, learning she's a doctor (well, almost), gangster club owner Billy (Antonio Cupo) finds another use for her: patching up a tortured man in his cellar. Mary is sickened by the task but hey, it pays five thousand dollars, and it's not as if she'll ever go back there.

Except now her CV and reputation are out in the ether, and when plastic surgery addict Beatress (a great turn from burlesque performer Tristan Risk) comes calling with an offer she can't refuse, well, she can't refuse it. Mary promises herself that this will be the only time she descends into the shadily legal world of body modification. But when she is drugged and raped at a party by her deviant lecturer Dr Grant (David Lovgren), she realises she can put her skills to a whole new use...

I have to say, I didn't have quite the Marmite reaction to this film I'd anticipated – nor did I view it through such a polarised feminist lens as I could have. But to be honest I've never quite understood why male violence towards women should be seen as unacceptable chauvinism while women getting their own back is somehow okay – sickening aggression is reprehensible however you look at it. But this doesn't mean you can't sympathise with its perpetrators, male or female: the Crow or the Bride, Sweeney Todd or Carrie.

Part rape revenge movie, part pitch black satirical portrait of a society obsessed with outward appearance, American Mary is certainly like nothing I've seen before, and makes for compulsive (if occasionally distressing) viewing. While not as gory as I'd expected (I actually found the plastic surgery scenes in Behind the Candelabra more gag inducing) the film is nevertheless not for the faint-hearted – although not for the reasons you might expect: the body modifiers in the movie are not the freaks: it's the 'normal' characters like Dr Grant who are truly scary.

Directors Jen and Sylvia Soska make an ill-advised cameo in American Mary

Ginger Snaps' Katherine Isabelle gives a bold, chilling, yet engaging performance in the title role, convincingly transforming herself from eager, self-confident student to cold-blooded backstreet artist of the flesh, her face becoming more and more mask-like as she becomes increasingly removed from the rules of everyday society, until she almost resembles the plastic, doll-like creatures she operates on, her humanity bleeding away like a cadaver on a slab.

Like her clients, Mary is completely isolated; yet, single-mindedly intent on expressing their inner selves through outward manifestation, what they and Mary fail to realise is that their dysmorphic obsessions affect those who care about them too – and it's this that will prove to be our heroine's undoing. Physician, heal yourself? Like Dead Ringers' twins Beverley and Elliot (and, this being Canadian body horror, there had to be a Cronenberg parallel in there somewhere – watch out for the Mantle trademark blood red surgical scrubs) she can't.

Striking and at times darkly beautiful (a jarring, self-conscious cameo from the film's directors aside) American Mary is a compelling, car-crash journey into a weird, occasionally wonderful, and freakily f*cked up world. Whether you'll understand it any better by the end of the film is debatable, as annoyingly there's little to help you get into the minds of Mary's customers, but hey, it's a fascinating trip. If you're tired of zombies, ghosts and home invasions and fancy something a little more visceral from your horror, you won't regret a date with American Mary.

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