Half the fun of a slasher film lies in its title. With deliciously tongue-in-cheek names like Chopping Mall and I Dismember Mama, you know what to expect: blood, guts, and more blood and guts. American Mary, however, communicates nothing along those lines. In fact, it communicates nothing at all. On its face, it suggests a biopic about America’s Sweetheart, silent film star Mary Pickford, or possibly a queer comedy riffing on old-school gay-speak. To be fair, American Mary (which made its American debut at last fall’s Fantastic Fest) is not a slasher movie, and it barely qualifies as a horror film, which may explain why the filmmakers settled on such an unsatisfying title. Rather, it’s purportedly a psychological study imbued with horror elements such as dismemberment, mutilation, and torture, but with all the blood drained from it.
Mary Mason (Isabelle) is a promising but broke medical-school student who starts performing elective plastic surgery on patients seeking to transform their appearances in unconventional ways. Her first patient is a Betty Boop look-alike who wants her breasts and genitalia to resemble a doll’s plastic features. (Insert Barbie joke here.) Soon, Dr. Mason’s specialty practice is booming. Other clients request horn implants, tongue-splitting, and – in the case of identical twins played by the film’s sibling directors – transplanted appendages. For most of us, the subculture of extreme body modification is unsettling and incomprehensible. (Admittedly, today’s ubiquitous piercings, tattoos, and spray tans also alter human appearance, albeit less drastically.) American Mary doesn’t explore (much less hint at) what motivates individuals to undergo such radical physical transmutations. The persons playing the clientele in this film are not professional actors whose appearances have been digitally or prosthetically enhanced – they’re the real deal. While the movie does not demean them, they’re presented more or less like freaks in a sideshow, there for us to gawk at. The Soska sisters might have looked to Thirties’ horror film director Tod Browning for guidance on how to handle this tricky subject matter more humanely.
American Mary ventures into genre territory only briefly, after its unlicensed practitioner is drugged and raped by an authority figure for no apparent reason. (The film’s spotty script is rife with many such WTF moments.) She exacts vengeance on her perpetrator with the zeal of Dr. Mengele, giving new meaning to a patient going under the knife. (Luckily for those of us on the squeamish side, we don’t witness these operating skills firsthand.) As the good girl gone bad, Isabelle demonstrates little screen presence. Although blandly pretty, her impassive face registers little emotion; she looks like Katy Perry on a Botox binge. Even the rubber apron she wears during working hours fails to bring out something interesting in either the actress or the character she plays. Given its many failings, nothing short of an extreme makeover could save American Mary. Scalpel, please.