Mary Mason has a problem: she’s broke. Mary also has a few advantages: she’s gorgeous, and she’s a sharp medical student who’s well on her way to being a highly skilled surgeon. These circumstances conspire to shove Mary into a very odd world in which tongue-splitting and 3D subcutaneous implants are considered tame- the extreme body modification scene. We meet Mary as she’s at her most financially desperate, with the story taking off as soon as her unenthusiastic audition to be a stripper suddenly turns into an opportunity to make some serious coin using her surgical talents and comfort with discretion. This puts her on the radar of a few individuals on a rather intense end of the body mod spectrum, and our story develops from there.
At this point one would think there’d be more than enough juice in a story about a woman getting wrapped up in the unlicensed, highly dangerous, and exceptionally bizarre black market for things like limb swapping and genital removal, and that you could spin such a tale without too much padding. Just as advantageous is that lead actress Katherine Isabella (Frankie & Alice) is blessed with a genuinely funny charm and sarcasm that both eases the audience into some weird circumstances and also sells some of the sillier plot turns.
Unfortunately the twin Soska sisters (Dead Hooker In A Trunk) seem more interested in telling a cheap slasher tale of revenge saddled by a clunky love story than actually exploring this bizarrely fascinating sub-culture with any depth. Hence the reason our eponymous heroine’s first introduction to the extreme end of the body mod world is through her clicking around on a website, meanwhile we’re treated to two stripping fantasies from a side character of inconsistent importance. The film is full of such shoddy priorities.
The first act or so of American Mary really does represent a promising start in which we are introduced to Mary and –despite some clunky dialogue and bad sound work– develop some genuine investment in her situation. As she starts to enter the body mod world with the insistent help of Beatrice (who sports a molded and frozen face reshaped to resemble Bettie Boop), Mary’s snide acceptance of her new moonlighting gig is fun to follow, while we also get some sense of what drives the kind of person who might want their nipples and vulva removed to resemble a doll.
It is at about this point the film suddenly takes a sharp, dark turn into female revenge film territory based on a contrived plot twist, and becomes sort of an I Spit On Your Grave in slow-motion. The plot still focuses on Mary building a lucrative little business while accepting newer and more extreme clients, but it also keeps up with a darker arc that robs the film of much of its humorous charm and unravels the tonal and narrative focus of the first act. This is not to suggest a film about extreme body modification should be light, per se, but the film is much more successful when its (split) tongue is buried firmly in cheek. That said, Isabella always handles the sloppy writing deftly, portraying a spiraling darkness that is at least believable in her character, if not in the story itself. It doesn’t hurt that she also make every frame she’s in pretty, no matter how ugly her surroundings or current procedure might be. But along with the revenge plot simply sucking all the fun from the film, it also keeps it tied up with a bizarre, undercooked romantic sub-plot that only adds further unnecessary padding.
There are still effective scenes peppered throughout these distractions but, for example, a good scene in which Mary exploits her new menacing nature completely deflates since the reason she’s doing so is only because the half-assed love story requires it of her. Also, some of the most effectively disturbing effects are employed in the revenge-focused sequences but when the film is supposedly interested in relating to and humanizing this sub-culture, exploiting these modifications for shock horror makes the entire film read as disingenuous. Still the film is full of excellent effects and ample amounts of medical gore. While it’s not as deeply difficult to watch as many might imagine, it’s definitely not for the squeamish.
At the risk of armchair rewriting, one can’t help but imagine a version of this film that more focused on Mary trying to maintain a clandestine business and operating within a black market full of interesting people while, say, avoiding criminal investigation. Even as is, the climax brushes past the revenge stuff with no satisfying conclusion and uses an oddly timed callback to earlier in the film as a sort of reverse deus ex machina. This last minute complication is yet another hint at where the film could have gone with exploring the rejection people of this culture face and how painful or even violent their desynchronization with what is considered “normal” can be. Instead it’s just another cheap way of turning everything to shit and going for super gritty intensity, where it was succeeding so much more by being amusingly fascinating.
The lesson here is edgy never wins over interesting. A strong start and solid central performance aren’t enough to save American Mary once it swerves off to be just another lame ass, cheap horror flick.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars