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Lane Bellamy [Celluloid 10.18.12] horror thriller

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Katharine Isabelle reappears after a long absence from horror films as the stoic, cold, and incredibly charismatic Mary Mason in American Mary, the new feature film from twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska (self-dubbed as "The Twisted Twins"). The higher production value and professional performances put it far above their previous sophomoric, but highly entertaining, effort Dead Hooker in a Trunk, but American Mary remains, like its predecessor, a pure exploitation film with little substance and a lot of fun.

Mary Mason is a troubled medical student in desperate need of money. She's missing classes and can’t pay her bills. Constantly berated by her harsh professor and frantic for cash, she heads to the local strip club dressed in lingerie to audition for a role as a dancer. The sleazy, yet sexy, club owner Billy forces Mary to give him a massage when one of his criminal cronies is brought in, bleeding, barely escaped from some crime-gone-wrong or mafia reprimand. Mary is asked: do you want to make 500 dollars fast? She covertly stitches up the criminal and makes her money, sick to her stomach at what just occurred. It isn't long before the strippers at the club hear that Mary is a medical student; would she be willing to perform illegal body modification surgeries on them for lots of money? Mary would. Soon Mary is raking in the dough. Noticing her new-found wealth, and assuming she's moonlighting as a prostitute, her professor invites her to a surgeons-only cocktail party (to which she wears an incredibly inappropriate, expensive dress cut down to her navel) where he immediately drugs and rapes her, filming it all. Devastated, the next morning Mary quits medical school and begins to go completely insane with her desire for revenge and the understanding of the meaningless of her own existence.

I have read a few other reviews of the film that refer to it as deep and as a feminist story; I don't think those people watched the same movie I did. American Mary is perhaps one of the shallowest films I have seen in a long time, completely centered on sexualizing female pain and distress. Aside from Mary, every woman in the movie is a stripper with severe psychological disorders engaging in abusive relationships with men. All the people with power in the film are male except for Mary, whose cold and detached nature prevents her from forming bonds with other human beings. Mary parades around in skimpy and seductive clothes yet never expresses any sexual desire for other people. Her only sexual experiences include a vile rape and appearances in the fantasies of the men who organize, control, and dominate her life. The lines between rape and coerced "sex" are blurred constantly: Mary’s rape was an unconscionable act, but her good-guy ally Billy habitually forces women to give him blow jobs when they come into his club. Other womens distress doesn't seem to bother Mary; she's a sociopath with no interest in people, sexual or otherwise. Not that the men in the film are very enchanting either: they are all abusers or stoic authority figures. American Mary is about horrible people doing horrible things to each other, not about women taking power back from the men who abuse it. But that's okay. Like low budget exploitation and rape-revenge movies from the 1970s and 80s, American Mary is more concerned with titillating the audience than making any kind of social statement or delving into character study.

Unfortunately, the truly fun and entertaining storyline loses its flow midway when Mary's motivations to continue her work become less clear and the plot stops making a lot of sense. Mary wanders in and out of the strip club and her apartment, where she performs hardcore body modification surgeries on those willing to pay for it, all the while spouting Greg Araki-style existentialist non-statements about the meaning of her life as Billy listens, love-struck. Occasionally she stops to torture her former professor who she has tied up in an undetermined basement somewhere. The body modifications are a lot of fun, with some pretty neat close-ups of the surgeries and nice prosthetic effects. Sadly, most of the hardcore gore is implied rather than direct, but the overall effect works. There are numerous, atmospheric and creative strip club scenes that seem ripped from From Dusk Till Dawn with a clear agenda: the filmmakers want to make movies like Eli Roth and Robert Rodriguez, and really want those directors to take notice of them (they dedicated the film to Eli Roth).

American Mary is layered with humor, some unintentional and some very planned. The Soskas make cameos playing twin sisters that want a particularly complex surgery (with terrible fake German accents), and Isabelle utters a couple of truly funny lines as Mary. After the first half of the movie, Mary's line delivery (d)evolves into Rose McGowan-like, fast sarcastic statements that give American Mary a snarky flavor. Like Ginger in Ginger Snaps, Isabelle's Mary is an innocent girl who becomes a monster because she can’t control her own sexuality. It's not too different as far as performances go, though Mary is more mature and less relatable than Ginger.

Actress Tristan Risk plays Beatress Johnson, a stripper obsessed with looking like Betty Boop to the point that she affects a Betty Boop voice all the time and has disastrous plastic surgery that makes her face look like it is made out of Play-Doh. Instead of being creepy, the questionable makeup and the irritating voice and mannerisms are just silly. Why would Beatress act like Betty Boop all the time, instead of just when she's at the strip club and trying to use her unique looks to get customers? Why hasn't anyone else in the neighborhood noticed the freakish woman with the bad Betty Boop wig walking around? Why hasn't she been made fun of on all the mainstream gossip blogs? And further, where does her disturbing fixation with looking like a kid’s cartoon character some from? Is she mentally ill? American Mary couldn’t begin to answer these questions, nor does it want to. By avoiding the obvious problems and interesting nature of a character like Beatress, American Mary declines to get really involved in the body modification movement except in an "Oh look, gnarly!" surface-area way. Billy’s seemingly real love for Mary is never allowed to grow, either. The Soskas have referred to American Mary as an allegory for their experiences in the film industry; is that why everyone in the film is a shallow, disconnected sociopath pathologically obsessed with their own looks, exploiting people for profit, or both?

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