Day one of Toronto After Dark film festival began with a bang. The Canadian premiere of a film by the twisted twins—Jen & Sylvia Soska—was out of this world and I was so happy to be in the audience. However, the show really began outside in the rain. It was one of those unexpected heavy downpours that was made extra gross by the already brisk fall forecast. As a passholder, there is little privilege to being able to go in first when you still have to wait outside in line. My feet were sopping wet but it did not deter me. I’m sure the girls noted the dedication of their fans because they ran outside to greet us, in sexy matching outfits, to thank us for coming and hug each of us down the line. Uhmazing start.
Let’s just forget about how lovely and enigmatic the directors are for a second, because the film is strong enough on its own. Yes, it helps knowing the directors are awesome human beings, but I would have enjoyed American Mary regardless. The film follows Katharine Isabelle (known for her role as Ginger in Ginger Snaps) as Mary who is a medical student hoping to begin her career as a surgeon. Mary is an unconventional leading lady in many ways. She’s extremely complex and just when I thought I began to “get” her, she transitioned to something else. A phenomenal performance played by Isabelle, who really made Mary a believable character you could root for. When a tragic event happens to her, she hardly embodies the role of the victim.
What’s so refreshing to have female directors at TAD besides the obvious (let’s be real—the genre world is a sausage fest), is that they actively choose not to revert to female stereotypes or cliches to round out the story. American Mary takes on the form of a rape-revenge flick, but moves so far past jilted victim that it’s wholly satisfying for everyone in the audience, female and male viewers alike. Something that really surprised and pleased me was the lack of an active gaze in an overtly sexual environment. Mary, as pictured above, transforms through the film, becoming more and more the fantasy woman her sleazy club-owner/co-worker Billy (played by the incredibly dashing Antonio Cupo) fantasizes about. But the gaze framed around Mary herself, is all her own. She quickly lets it be known that dressing the way she does is not for anyone else but herself. Men fawn after her and she puts on quite a show when she goes in surgery, but it’s a facade. The more dolled up she gets, the easier it is for her to distance herself from what she’s doing, whether it’s dissecting someone for fun or manipulating their bodies as they desire.
The film really centers around the idea of identity and forms of expression. Mary as a character is totally unlike any other female representation in the film. She’s incredibly strong, intelligent, twisted and beautiful, but she doesn’t let any one of these traits solely define her. She seems to inhabit a rather deviant world, one filled with corrupt authority figures and a seedy underbelly, but she manages to easily navigate through it all. A knockout cameo performance by Jen & Sylvia themselves really solidifies the world of Mary as a bizarre and intriguing one.
The underworld of body modifications is delightfully highlighted in a way that is neither formulaic i.e. people into mods shown as “freaks,” or seen as an exclusive subculture breaming with pretension. The Soska twins deal with the realm of modification in an entirely respective tone, which I wish to thank them for because it is so rare to see. Modification in the film is rather extreme but the subject matter is still carefully handled. One stand-out performance is Tristan Risk’s portrayal of Beatrice as the Betty Boop look-alike. She was the embodiment of Betty…yes, the cartoon character. I especially appreciated that role because of my Betty Boop adoration (I have her tattooed on my foot). Many of the mod scenes were especially fun because of the gross-out factor in some of the effects. The sisters confirmed that some of the mods shown were real, while others were discreetly edited to make them seem as such. The ultimate result is a lot of fun gory moments that are completely unexpected.
To be honest, I had no expectations going into American Mary because I try to avoid trailers as best I can before festivals. Sometimes I don’t want to know anything, and in this particular case, that made the experience all the better. The twisted twins are the embodiment of everything I love about women in horror. They have created a film that is laden with feminist ideology and still manages to be gross, fun, and disturbing; all things I enjoy with genre cinema. I expect to see plenty from these two in the near future, especially because their film just got picked up for distribution by Anchor Bay! Congratulations ladies, and may I say, well deserved.
Oh, and I already asked if they every thought about expanding to triplets, I’d love to be their third.