The “ick” factor is high in “American Mary,” though to the credit of sophomore feature writer-helmers Jen and Sylvia Soska, those squirms are induced as much psychologically as by graphic surgical imagery. This tale of a violently disillusioned medical student’s wade into the weird world of extreme body modification doesn’t develop all its narrative and thematic ideas to the fullest. But the polished pic is still outre and entertaining enough to please most jaded horror fans. So far it’s been picked up by Anchor Bay for Canadian distribution, and by Universal Intl. for the U.K., Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Aspiring surgeon Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle, well known to genre fans for playing the title role in three “Ginger Snaps” films) is introduced practicing her suturing technique on a plucked turkey carcass — a harbinger of much queasiness to come. Despite her glossy digs, she’s broke, so to support her med-school expenses, she interviews at a local strip club under the leering gaze of manager Billy (Antonio Cupo) and bouncer Lance (Twan Holliday).
Being objectified isn’t her thing, though. She’s about to leave when Billy suddenly offers hard cash if she’ll use her in-training operating skills to fix up the victim of some shady beatdown in the basement. No questions are asked; the job is unpleasant, but fast and lucrative.
Soon after, she’s dismayed to find herself being politely hounded by Beatress (Tristan Risk), a helium-voiced stripper who has had herself grotesquely altered to resemble Betty Boop. Having been impressed by Mary’s prior emergency performance, she offers big money for a cosmetic procedure. Before she knows it, Mary is in business catering to the whims of the “bod mod” community, people who view their bodies as canvases that can be altered well beyond mere tattoos, piercings and implants.
Mary’s commitment to this path is cemented, however, by a horrific experience set in motion by her bullying academic adviser Dr. Grant (David Lovgren). The Soska sisters’ screenplay does an uneven job interweaving a subsequent Grand Guignol feminist-revenge element with that of Mary’s new and presumably illegal cosmetic surgery practice, which she operates with Billy and Lance as her cover/strongarms.
Increasingly surreal demands by her patients, as well as Mary’s arguably eroding mental stability, flirt with “American Psycho”-style hallucinatory social satire. But the pic teases rather than articulates that angle, perhaps in part because Isabelle makes her heroine seem so droll, assertive and unflappable, there’s little sense that she might be losing her grip. Neither does Mary ever seem in much danger externally, as indeed she eventually is.
If these loose threads and underdeveloped aspects leave “American Mary” less than fully satisfying, it’s still a novel ride that confidently mixes horror, humor and offbeat character fillips. (The sibling creators themselves appear as identical twins with particularly baroque surgery desires.) A big step up, production-wise, from the Soskas’ self-financed shoestring debut, “Dead Hooker in a Trunk,” the pic is resourceful and reasonably sick on all design fronts, with some ironic song choices juicing the soundtrack.