Monday, 14 January 2013


Twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska are emerging as darlings of the low budget horror scene and it is their experience in the industry that analogously informs the plot of their second film as writer-directors, American Mary. Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle, of Ginger Snaps fame) is a medical student struggling with debt and trying to make ends meet. Through a fortunate chain of events involving a strip club, some ad-hoc surgery and a woman who looks like a living Betty Boop (Tristan Risk) she ends up engulfed in the body modification scene performing illegal surgery like tongue splits, horn insertion and genital sealing.

There is a truly excellent premise here. The world of underground surgery and body modification is a fertile area to set a horror film within - although this is more a bloody psychological thriller than out-and-out horror. One only has to think of backroom butchery and the types of people having these procedures to conjure up some fascinating and unnerving images.

Katherine Isabelle is astounding in the lead role. Her initial vulnerability gives way to unflinching determination and, unlike many horror film heroines, she seems pragmatic and not prone to screaming. She never appears less than collected on screen and the camera lingers on her every move.

The film looks great for the relatively limited budget but the real problem lies in the pacing and script. Predictable horror staples (such as obligatory sexual violence) are thrown in as shortcut devices to elicit sympathy for Mary and help us understand her later actions, but the problem is it has no bearing on the narrative as a whole. There is really no reason for that entire subplot and it could be lifted out without harming the film in any way.

Similarly, there doesn’t appear to be need for an extended slow motion dream sequence featuring Mary seductively dousing herself in blood just to illustrate that sometime love interest Billy (Antonio Cupo) fancies her, although there is surely an explanation that probably involves it being a comment on the male gaze in horror. It even goes on to try to replicate the same trick later on. It is excess for excess's sake in a film that already has plenty.

The arc that Mary's character is taken on just doesn't feel fully realised. After a protracted build-up she is suddenly committing escalating violent acts that take huge leaps from scene to scene and don't have a grounded impetus. Development is all well and good but the majority of Mary's seems to appear unexplained over a 15 minute period. Most of it is delivered via oh-so clever iPhone exposition with plot points covered by tapping away on a touchscreen or laptop. Once is fine but it happens nearly every time we need to be told something about Mary's state of mind or situation.

It is deliciously bloody although never particularly explicit. It stumbles most when it takes unnecessary tentative fumbles towards wacky comedy, such as a cameo from the directors as German twins, or from their father, again as a zany German.

The final third is a real drag. A police investigation (lead by a an actor using an unbearable English accent) hampers the pace and once we have seen the extent of what Mary is capable of in one outrageous scene, there s nowhere else for it to go. We are left at a cat and mouse scenario with the cops that is lacking in tension and an interesting, leftfield threat which appears too late and leaves too quickly.

There are real problems with the sound mix at times, which presumably comes as a result of the budget, but scenes are often overwhelmed by the background noise of passing cars or nightclub music. It is a minor problem but relatively frequent and does take you out of the film.

Crucially, it has a strong authorial voice and does feel like it has something to say. It is just a shame that what is does have to say is often crowded out by the need to satisfy genre fans with what they are presumed to want.

There is much to admire in the film's energy and there are some standout sequences, not least her early forays into this murky world. The Soska sisters are definitely a force to keep an eye on in horror but this is too flawed to consider more than just a substantial calling card.


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