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Film4 FrightFest 2012: Karen Oughton falls head over heels in love with AMERICAN MARY!!


The Twisted Twins, Jen and Sylvia Soska, blazed on to the horror scene in 2009 with their debut feature, DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK. This year, the “gore~gorgeous” girls offered a trailer for AMERICAN MARY featuring Katharine Isabelle (GINGER SNAPS) as Mary Mason, a sexy medical student who becomes embroiled in the world of underground surgery. Babes, boobs and blood in other words? Don’t believe a second of it. This feature is life-changing. A deadly serious, funny, inventive piece about how we create ourselves. If I was writing my Sight & Sound critics’ poll list now, it would be different. 


Isabelle’s Mary Mason is stone-cold broke. We find her alone, talking to her bird in her brown-hued apartment and in lecture halls where she is attempting to concentrate and ignore calls from the student loan company. Mary is desperate to do well, is fiercely intelligent and actually apologises to the lecturer whose class she disrupted. She knows that she is killing her chances with the weight of her worries. We follow the dejected girl to a strip joint for an audition that is depressingly funny and ultimately very sad. About to leave, she consents to carrying out an emergency operation on one of the joint's messed-up clients for quick cash, before coming face-to-face with the world of body modification and people who are not as they appear to be.


If there is any justice, this film will be seen by millions. 


The heart of AMERICAN MARY is its honesty. Isabelle is absolutely unrecognisable as Mary, an everywoman who is trying to live with varying interpretations of the almost impossible ideals of the modern (American) dream. She smashes it to pieces and starts again when life forces her to. She is by turns needy, shocked, fierce and utterly at peace as she slices her way through the world. One particular scene shows her sashaying into a room after a difficult encounter and, frankly, if goddesses lived, Mary is what they would look like: pure power. It is quite awe-inspiring. Isabelle doesn’t break character once, somehow managing a rather patient comedy of manners alongside absolute psychosis. You are not watching Isabelle playing Mary – she is showing you herself creating Mary as Mary finds different ways of being. 


Other key players in the cast also bring the film alive and prevent it from becoming a character piece.  These people understand their material, such as Tristan Risk, a burlesque performer and here the utterly believable Beatress. Beatress has become her own Betty Boop.  An amalgamation of old-style glamour, a sharp understanding of sexuality, friendliness, spunk and a playfully snappy streak, she is what fits her and feels good, from her hair to the way she lovingly calls her friend a cunt in high, girlish tones. 


In contrast, Paula Lindberg as Ruby RealGirl brings a delicate frankness to her character that is rather heartbreaking and gorgeously romantic.  Similar can be said for Twan Holliday as Lance Delgreggo, as a bouncer who brings a smile of safety to Mary’s face with a milkshake. These are realistic representations of people comfortable with their differences in a world where people pretend they know who they are.


For this effort to come together is due to the Twisted Twins. Look closely and you will see how everything about the film is placed consciously. From the complementary green dress that makes Mary’s wide eyes and hair ‘pop’ so perfectly at a party, to the prosthetic make-up that contains Beatress’ smile, the art team render the world perfectly. The Twins, along with Brian Pearson, also have an amazing eye for cinematography, enabling the audience to see the characters from their own perspectives, from each others’ perspectives and self-reflexively from the perspectives of a horror audiences with the expectations offered by the titillating Twins’ branding.  


The script is in many places absolutely superb. It is authentic in a way often only seen in the rarest of documentaries. Tonally it is caught somewhere between the banter of friends in a rough and ready workplace and the emotional nakedness of trusting someone with something huge from the start. It's also very much a tool filmically and helps those unfamiliar with the body modification scene by providing them some guidance for the emotions the characters are experiencing. They are dislocated from standard ideas of core identity and are at the same time formed from them – watch out for the accents and speaking styles along the way.


Of course, there are some aspects of the film that people may dislike. The story can get confusing owing to its complexity and because the characters do not always act the way we expect them to. Indeed, it can be argued that there are radically different ways to interpret the film, depending on how you notice and feel about the details. Many will recognise its craftsmanship or applaud its independent backstory while perhaps secretly considering it sick as it tackles very unusual subjects in a respectful (and occasionally slightly naive) way. Others may simply want it to be something that it isn’t or go further than it does: whilst teasing fashionable sub-cultures (there is a light, fun five-minute segment), it doesn’t revel in them. You are unlikely, honestly, to know quite how you feel (and you will feel) at the end. 


AMERICAN MARY is the most emotionally accurate, bravest, best-made horror film I have ever seen, particularly given the Twisted Twins' current position within the industry. It is sexy, revolting, empowering and overwhelming all at once without ever feeling exploitative. It is the Twisted Twins’ story and they are asking you come to them on mutual terms. Watch Mary, enjoy her and face your own desires.




Dr Karen Oughton


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