Bloody Mary: Katharine Isabelle grounds oft-disjointed "American Mary"

American Mary (2013) 
103 min., rated R.

A glass ceiling deserves a good shattering by independent-minded, cool-chick Canadian twin filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska (aka "Twisted Twins"). A technically proficient follow-up to "Dead Hooker in a Trunk," their ultra-low-budget 2009 grindhouse effort, "American Mary" follows in line with femme psychological-horror films of the last decade (from 2003's "May" to last year's "Excision") with shards of "Audition" and "Hostel" (Eli Roth gets a thanks at the bottom of the credits). As written and directed by the Soska sisters, their bizarro, provocative but uneven Grand Guignol isn't your ordinary female-empowerment horror film, especially with a committed-as-hell performance by Katharine Isabelle. Here, the victim, Mary, is also the slasher, "Bloody Mary."

A focused and dedicated Seattle med student with a take-no-crap attitude but a naiveté, Mary Mason (Isabelle) doesn't have the wherewithal to afford her phone bill and student loans. She does, however, have enough spare time to practice suturing a turkey in her loft apartment. Then she finds an ad online for a strip club, going in dressed the part with a résumé and no pole. The slimy manager, Billy (Antonio Cupo), entices her with $5,000 in cash if she performs black-market surgery on someone in the basement. Mary isn't about to turn money down so she agrees but still has her conscience intact, feeling disgusted afterwards. Before long, she becomes the go-to doctor for the club's employees, Beatrice (Tristan Risk), an unfinished Betty Boop incarnate who has had fourteen different surgeries already, and a plastic-faced fashion designer (Paula Lindberg) who wants to be asexualized like Barbie. Things are just getting started for Mary, who later finds her calling in the world of body modification after a key event triggers her disillusionment of med school.

Before an inevitable 180, "American Mary" is a compelling character study in its first half, keeping up a weird, kinky tone and Isabelle nailing the caustic wit of Mary. The Soskas wrote the script with actress Isabelle in mind and it's hard to imagine any other actress in the role. The fetching Canadian actress has always had that "it" spark since 2000's teen-werewolf gem "Ginger Snaps" and stood out in horror films that didn't always deserve her. But here as Mary, she's droll, smart, and sexy; from female victim to anti-heroine, the character is never played on just one level. Also worth noting: a bubbly, scene-stealing Risk as Beatrice, and Brian Pearson's moody cinematography captures the dingy, seedy, blood-spattered surgical underworld and strip club with a few hallucinatory touches.

Of course, to empower Mary and send her down a road of revenge, success, and plain old money, there is a rape. It's uncomfortable and shot in the least titillating angle possible, as it should be, focusing on Mary's eyes. The film could be called misandric (for a change, not misogynistic), as Mary's teaching instructors turn out to be vile, lecherous creeps, but the point being, it's the cause for Mary's dark transformation. Interestingly, the Soskas don't judge or demonize the "freakish" body-mod subculture, be damned that her clientele requests tongue-splitting and nipple removal. Mary actually considers simple piercings to be "vanilla." The writer-directors themselves even turn up as twins from Berlin who want to have their arms exchanged and horns implanted.

Having cockeyed ideas about pursuing the American Dream and paying your phone bill, "American Mary" takes chances, which is more than what can be said for the majority of horror films out there (found footage, remakes, et al.). Mary is such a complicated character that the rest of the narrative just kind of follows her and becomes aimless, disjointed, and murky in finishing up. Fortunately, the film doesn't make the misguided decision to tag on a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too ending. The viewer's overall reaction might depend on the viewer's threshold for dark, tough material and squirm-inducing (but thankfully not gratuitous) surgery. Still, as a cult item in the making to the horror community and a morbid curiosity piece to everyone else, you can't deny the Soska sisters' talents for carving out a smart, unique handling of the genre.

Grade: B -