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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 11.30.12] Canada horror thriller

When a movie has been kicking around the film festival circuit and winning as many accolades as American Mary has, bloated expectations are to be expected. Does it really live up to the hype or is it now a matter of a movie winning awards simply because it's already won everything else? In this instance, American Mary is a rarity. Not only does it live up to expectation, it surpasses it.

Written and directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska, the twin sisters who arrived on the film scene a few years ago with the ridiculously fun Dead Hooker in a Trunk (review), American Mary is a leap above their debut effort. Katharine Isabelle, the actress who made a splash in Gingersnaps more than a decade ago, stars as Mary, a talented medical student on the road to becoming a surgeon. Strapped for cash, she applies for a job at a shady nightclub and walks away with five grand and her clothes intact after performing emergency repair work on a guy who was getting worked over for god knows what. Her skill is noted by a club dancer who approaches Mary with a proposition to perform an underground body modification surgery. The one time body mod gig turns into a regular one when Mary drops out of medical school and soon the naive surgeon-in-training is running an extremely lucrative black market surgery business.

There's more to Mary, or Bloody Mary as she's known in body mod circles, than just odd surgeries. She continues to exact revenge on a professor who did her wrong, it's shocking to see the extent of her "practice" sessions, and the police start asking a lot of questions which eventually bring down Mary's entire operation.

It's a pretty straight forward story of good girl gone bad but the exception here is that the Soska's write Mary as an independent woman quite happy and capable of taking care of herself who, when the opportunity presents itself, seizes it and uses it for her own benefit. Unlike the horror trope which dictates that the victim gets a man in her life to vindicate her, American Mary follows through on the idea of revenge first seen in I Spit on Your Grave though it does so without the excessive violence. There's quite a bit of blood here but most of the graphic details are left off screen, a bold choice considering audiences' hunger for blood and guts but also a smart one in that it doesn't alienate the weaker of stomach.

Though it features a variety of Vancouver talents, Isabelle is the shinning beacon and her performance is on another level from everyone else. It's a shame but the movie doesn't suffer too badly from the lack of additional talent in front of the camera, especially considering that Isabelle is in nearly every scene and pretty much owns every moment. Part of it is her acting ability but a huge part of her appeal is also the energy she exudes. Even when not talking and simply walking around in a ridiculously provocative outfit (of which there are many), there's a strength that radiates from the actress. She is, in one word, magnetic.

It could have used a little more work to fill in the story of Mary's transformation from student to surgeon and the emotional transformation she goes through, the transition feels too clinical and it's not really clear how it affects Mary on an emotional level, but American Mary still manages to emerge as a good entry into the largely vacant genre of female-led horror movies. Technically speaking this is an intergalactic step above Dead Hooker in a Trunk and if it's any indication, the Soska's are well on their way to making a horror masterpiece.

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