Starring Katharine Isabelle and Tristan Risk. Rated 18A. Opens Friday, May 31, at the Rio Theatre
Thirteen years ago, Katharine Isabelle emerged as a feminist horror icon with the great werewolf film Ginger Snaps. Filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska took full advantage of that association when they wrote American Mary with Isabelle in mind, turning out a darkly witty howl of rage in the process. It’s Isabelle—playing cash-strapped med student Mary Mason—who gives the otherwise unevenly cast and occasionally threadbare film its pulse. With only two seeming choices in life, victim or monster, she makes for an immensely sad creature, even in stilettos.
Equally, Mary’s binary world is divided between a strip club run by violent gangsters—where she shows up looking for work—and a med school where students are referred to as “useless twats” by the blow-waved surgeon, Dr. Grant (David Lovgren, apparently channelling Jason Patric’s misogynistic gynecologist from Your Friends & Neighbors).
Neither environment is safe, something Mary discovers when she shows up at one of Dr. Grant’s “parties”. She eventually finds a calm middle ground and some autonomy performing underground surgery for the body-modification community, thanks to Betty Boop–fixated stripper Beatress (Vancouver burlesque performer Tristan Risk, who also shines). But Mary’s gruesome revenge trip on Grant and the gradual pileup of bodies guarantee that things ain’t gonna last.
This locally made film deserves the hype it’s been getting at genre festivals during the past year, and not just because of the well-executed splatter or visual nods ranging from Dead Ringers to Audition. The Soskas might not know where to take their great premise, which makes for a murky third act, but you have to wonder if it isn’t meant to reflect a zero-sum fate Mary was never going to escape. Not in this world, anyway.