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Review: ‘American Mary’ Is Just Another Stroll Down Body Modification Lane

Review: 'American Mary' Is Just Another Stroll Down Body Modification Lane

Some great movies, and a whole lot of terrible ones, seem to
begin with one image. With regard to “American Mary,” that image the voluptuous
Katherine Isabelle, clad in form-hugging lingerie, clasping a scalpel, blood
leaking into her cleavage, an item of titillation that just about covers the
singular kink-and-horror appeal of this sideshow oddity, showing up ten minutes
into the film. It’s the creation of a tableau more than the promise of a story,
the sort of imprint that remains over the course of this film, which never
begins to capture the “why” of that image’s core appeal beyond superficial

“American Mary” boasts a status as sort of a genuine article,
making full use of the appeal of Isabelle, a scream queen veteran of “Ginger
” and “Freddy Vs. Jason.” Here she’s Mary, a buxom, desperate medical
student failing to pay her bills on time and at the mercy of her overly grabby
professor. Surfing the internet lands her in a gentleman’s club, where the
revelation that she’s a med student gets her an invitation to a backroom, where
people who don’t pay up mob debts suffer grisly fates. Within a day, word gets
out that there’s a med student out there skilled but cash-strapped, and it
brings out the local, ahem, color.

The first is Beatrice, a woman who has gotten surgery to become
more doll-like, supposedly de-sexualizing her in the eyes of men. Her sing-song
voice and mask-like visage immediately paints her as some sort of
out-of-the-box slasher villain, but despite her Betty Boop affectations, she’s
simply a lonely woman with a very specific problem. Beatrice’s life companion
Ruby needs a similar surgery, a radical body modification that no medical
professional would ever entertain. Ten thousand dollars later, the surgery is
complete, and a thankful Beatrice is now Mary’s accidental best friend.

Mary soon learns that Beatrice is the first, with a long
line of interested parties seeking all sorts of unsanctioned body manipulation.
By day she’s attending medical school, but by night, she’s the town’s most
notorious “slasher,” as the surgeons refer to themselves. A party with more
legally-inclined doctors reveals that the medical professionals have more
screws loose than the average body-mod supporter, one of them cackling as he
admits, “I cut people up for a living!“ That night, Mary finds herself a victim
of sexual assault, drugged by her peers to the point where she has no memory of
the event, while a tape makes its way around the community like the loaded
MacGuffin it is.

The rest of the film seems to be building to a collision
between that footage and the unraveling of Mary’s highly lucrative side
operation, though “American Mary” seems less motivated by story structure than by showcasing an open appreciation for diverse, personality-driven plastic
surgery that straddles the line between believable and horrific. More screen
time is granted to sequences like Mary’s appointment with two Russian sisters
played by the film’s writer-directors, the Soska Twins, who reveal themselves
to be first-grade hams as performers. The radical surgery these two request
does nothing to advance the plot, but it’s just one of many additions that
establishes “American Mary” as a film that would rather fetishize surgery
sequences set to rock music than actually address questions of identity. The credits reveal the film is “For Eli Roth,” and like Roth, the statuesque Soskia Twins appear desperate to seem viable in front of the camera as well as behind.

It’s the second half that chucks narrative convention out
the window by revealing that the incomplete, momentum-less “American Mary” is all
about the shock value of normalizing extreme body modification. Dreams slip
into reality and fantasy assumes a nightmarish plausibility as Mary’s rationale
melts away; one could argue her transformation into an avenging sadist takes
the teeth out of the film’s medical industry critique, turning it into just
another gothic story of one who abuses absolute power. Ultimately, “American
Mary” simply reveals itself as a film with little on its mind, content to scare
rubberneckers into contemplating the backstory of the more outlandish body
manipulation jobs they’ve seen in public. A documentary would have sufficed.

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