With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row
If you remember this nursery rhyme when you were younger at day-care then you might have thought that the passage was about some sweet old lady who had OCD and a love affair for horticulture. However, some experts on the study of nursery rhymes and their origins believe the passage was about the infamous Queen “Bloody” Mary I (Reign 1553-1558).
In this delightful tune, Queen Mary I is addressed first-hand about all of the poor saps she’s sent to the graveyard (her garden). The silver bells refer to instruments of torture that crushed the thumb with the tightening of a screw, and cockleshells were torture devices that were attached to the genitals. Come on, don’t act surprised. They’re called cockleshells for God’s sake. The maids in the final line allude to the newly invented guillotine during that time period, which was nicknamed The Maiden. They called it “The Maiden” because the first moniker, “Captain Choppy,” never caught on. Why do I bring this up you ask? I do so because things on the surface always appear further from the truth, reality.
American Mary is a 2012 film by the famous Soska sisters who produced their splatter debut film Dead Hooker in a Trunk. Jen and Sylvia Soska returned us the favor with this film that is actually a much darker and ambitious project reworking body horror themes with clever new angles. What I loved about American Mary is that it used the classic mad scientist figure to offer a cautionary tale that materialism makes the heart grow darker.
Katherine Isabelle, star of the cult horror film Ginger Snaps, is Mary Mason, an intelligent student studying to be a surgeon. She’s also flat broke and can barely afford to keep a cell phone payment. Trying financial circumstances lead to an unusual job opportunity from a local strip club owner (Antonio Cupo)
At first, the Soska sisters make us think that they are about to use the stereotypical trope of: broke American hot girl turns to stripping/selling her body to pay the bills-the typical “I am stripping to put myself through University to become a Political Science major” angle-. However, we are thrown for a loop and off Mary goes into a prosperous subculture where body modification and illicit medical procedures combine to bloody, but profitable effect.
Plastic and cosmetic surgery/modifying the human body in a search for individuality and perfection could have been played for satirical laughs, but not here. The film takes conservative and dominant ideas on aesthetic beauty and runs with them to some startling places. American Mary suggests these cultural staples, which cater pretty much always to male taste and fantasy, are bland, twisted and unhealthy.
If Mary Mason is magazine model ‘perfect’ then the heavily made up face of Tristan Risk, as the kooky Beatrice Johnson, is her opposite. Beatrice has spent millions on surgery to look like a 1930s house doll thus baiting an off-putting response from the viewer before illuminating the rather kind personality ‘underneath’ her surface. She seems far less hazardous and bizarre than other figures in the movie. Undoubtedly, the Soskas have something to say on society’s unbridled and dictatorial stance on the nature of beauty and what counts as beautiful without coming across as preachy.
As word gets around Mary begins to get offers to perform all sorts of bizarre operations (Nobody knows who she is so they start to refer her as “Bloody Mary”), but she also gets the attention of her tutor Dr. Grant (David Lovgren) who begins a chain of events with Mary that forces her to use her skills against those she trusted as she turns her back on regular surgery in favor of making her tormentors suffer.
The movie ended up being very dream-like and thanks to some strong acting of the female characters it makes sure you won’t forget this soon. It all goes down in very relaxing mood which makes you think while you watch. Not often this comes over in a good way but this time it has and makes sure it will stick with you.
Brian Pearson’s expressionist photography also lends the movie a stylish but seedy neon-noir sheen that sits ever so well with the narrative and subtext that acknowledges appearance can be utterly deceptive. Another thing I liked that the Soskas pull off is never allowing things to slide into cheap torture porn activities. In fact, it’s the reverse of such concerns and hollow kicks. Mary might grow addicted to the benefits of her extra-curricular activities but even when seeking revenge on her male harassers and abusers, she’s not a stereotypical femme gone berserk, cutting of dicks and chopping off balls.
There are some scenes that are remarkably creepy, and the Soska’s show they can ramp up the pressure and bizarre factor in both subtle and evident ways, and both are just as effective. It is disturbing and shocking, but delightful for being so. The surgery scenes are so well shot that it’s impossible to look away, even though they are quite disturbing, and they did such a good job of making this viewer feel so deeply for Mary that when things begin to happen to and around her, you could feel the brutality of it all. This Ultra-effective characterization is in part down to incredible writing, and of course down to the sensational performance that Katharine Isabelle delivers here. She carries much of the film on her own and is simply amazing. A methodically solid performance, she brings Mary to life as someone we equally feel for and fear, which is no simple task. She makes Mary personable yet fiercely insane, in a haunting, creepy and oh so sexy performance.
The Canadian filmmaker twins I think crafted a fine work that boasted a smart script that made bold and refreshing statements whilst carving through traditional genre tropes. American Mary is an accomplishment and suggests the Soskas are thrilling new voices in horror cinema.