"American Mary" directors Jen and Sylvia Soska
"American Mary" directors Jen and Sylvia Soska

Not long ago, 29-year-old Canadian twins Jen and Sylvia Soska were just another typically disgruntled pair of film school students struggling to cast and finance their final project. Modeled on the exploitation trailers in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse,” the Soskas’ brazenly-titled short “Dead Hooker in a Trunk” was an absurdist, blood-spattered, lo-fi romp that cost the sisters their funding and earned them the disdain of school administrators. Having been expanded to feature length, however, in the wake of a raucous graduation-day screening, “Dead Hooker” was picked up last year by IFC Midnight for On Demand and DVD release, and won an eager following among horror acolytes that included Eli Roth, director of “Hostel” and the “Grindhouse” trailer “Thanksgiving.”

The Soskas return this year with their sophomore effort, “American Mary,” the disquieting tale of an abused, debt-burdened medical student who turns to performing unorthodox body-modification surgery as means of both profit and revenge. The film, which debuted in May at the Cannes Film Market, marks a significant jump in production value for the twins, and though it retains some of “Dead Hooker”’s clever camp, “American Mary” also probes dark sociological territory that broadens its appeal well-beyond the horror-junky market.

“American Mary”’s opening scene—a winning allusion to Mary Harron’s beautifully composed title sequence in “American Psycho”—gives us Mary (Katharine Isabelle) in her dingy Seattle kitchen, at work with needle and thread on an expanse of tanned flesh that turns out to belong to a turkey, but which, at a glance, could be easily mistaken for human. It is the first in an array of alluring, disorienting images that include women surgically reconfigured to resemble Barbie and Betty Boop, and a set of horned German twins played by the Soska sisters themselves. With these and an accompanying collection of characters equal parts endearing and horrific, "American Mary" touches on some academic-grade issues without severing its roots in satire and dread.      

Reached by phone this week in Los Angeles, the Soskas discussed the body modification community, American standards of beauty, and, of course, their affinity for gore.

"American Mary" screens next on closing night of Australia's Monster Fest, on November 9. Check out the festival's full lineup here.
I understand your first film, "Dead Hooker in a Trunk," began as a stand-alone trailer. Is that right?    

Jen: Yes. It was our final project—or our final short film project, but our funding got cut off, so we ended up doing it on our own time with our own resources, calling in all the favors that we had, and calling our friends up to work on it on their own time for free. I think we played it dead-last at the graduation screening, and half the audience got up and walked out and the other half was cheering so loud that you could hardly hear the intentionally very offensive dialogue.

Sylvia: So everything with “Dead Hooker in a Trunk”—our first—which we maxed out our credit cards and called in even more favors in order to have our feature-length version of, started as a “Fuck you,” to film school, because they pulled our funding and we were really pissed. They had a list of everything that was disallowed because of school policy, and we put in everything in “Dead Hooker in a Trunk,” and then we put in necrophilia and bestiality, and we didn’t really know what to expect. We just wanted to get a big reaction. And we kind of walked ass-backwards into it. We’re such big huge film nerds. It’s just such a thrill for the two of us to be able to actually do this.

Katherine Isabelle in "American Mary"
Katherine Isabelle in "American Mary"

Did you have a feature in mind?

Jen: While we were shooting the trailer, we would make jokes to ourselves, you know: “We’ll do this in the feature version, or in the full-length version we’ll do that,” because the scenes that we wrote had no connection to one another in the trailer, and we ended up using all of those scenes still in the film. But then when we decided, “OK, we have these stand alone scenes, and we’re going to write ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk,’ and we have ideas for what happens in between, but we have a series of scenes that we’ve already created that we definitely want to have happen in there.” It was a bit of a writing challenge.

Sylvia: Thank God for Robert Rodriguez’s book on how he made “El Mariachi,” “Rebel Without A Crew,” because the way he wrote that is he put a bunch of crazy scenes together, on cards on his living room floor, and decided what order he was going to go in. And that’s exactly how we did “Dead Hooker.” We put in a bunch of crazy scenes and we were like, “OK, so how is she going to get there? How are they going to get over there?”

How did this project came about? What has your journey been like from that first “Dead Hooker” trailer to “American Mary?”

Sylvia: Actually, when we get afraid of anything, we start to research it, because fear really comes from ignorance. The theme for “American Mary”—body modification—actually came from what we later realized was an April fool’s joke. There was this image that this guy had of these two identical twin brothers. And they had taken off one brother’s arm and connected it to the other brother’s chest plate. And he had had one of his ring fingers removed, and it was attached to the remaining hand on the one-armed brother’s body. It was also accompanied by this story about body modification, and only if you were identical twins could you understand wanting to have this kind of process with your other, and I though that was so crazy. And it scared the shit out of me, so Jen and I got obsessed with it and we researched it and we thought it was this really cool topic that hadn’t really been displayed since Clive Barker and his “Hellraiser” series. So, years later, we actually started in film with a film called “Dead Hooker in a Trunk,” and were working on getting that filmed, and we were talking to Eli Roth—who’s been a great mentor, really supporting our work—and he asked us what other scripts we had. And we had nothing but we didn’t want to admit that, so we thought of a bunch of things that we thought could write in two weeks—really fast—and we just bullshitted about this script and that script. And he said, “The one about the medical student sounds interesting, I’d like to read that one.” And I was like, “Oh, no problem. I’ll just send that to you in a couple weeks.” And then Jen and I had knowledge about body modification that we could finally apply to something.

And after all that, the image that started it all turned out to be an April fool’s joke?

Jen: Yes. I didn’t realize until our flesh art consultant Russ Fox had told me. He said, “What even got you girls into body modification?” And I told him the story and he was very sweet in explaining different things in body mod culture to me—because I’m not in this community myself and he was always very sweet—but he started laughing at me. And I was like, “What’s so funny about that. That’s so disturbing.” And he’s like, “No, no. That’s very well-known as an April fool’s joke.”

Sylvia: It was kind of cool because we got a lot of authenticity from the body-mod community—because Russ Fox is a flesh artist as well—he came out and supervised all the medical stuff. He taught Katie how to do all the suturing. And we also had Elwood Reid from the Church of Body Modification come on and a lot of real mods from the community so we could blend some actual people from the culture with prosthetic effects.