The last day of FrightFest came around way too quickly for me. Although there was some criticism of the choice of films this year, particularly the ones programmed on Saturday I’d been lucky enough to avoid, all the entries I’ve seen have been – at the very least – interesting, have more often than not proved thought provoking, and – in the case of ‘The Seasoning House’ and ‘Sleep Tight’ – were extremely exceptional. FrightFest has given me renewed hope for the future of horror, and if the industry could completely jettison found footage and torture porn by this time next year, my happiness will be complete.

But the festival wasn’t over yet, and the first film of the day – the eagerly awaited ‘American Mary’ – was about to join ‘Sleep Tight’ in my own personal horror movie heaven.

Everyone in the main screen fell a little bit in love with ‘twisted twins’ Jen and Sylvia Soska when they were enthusiastically welcomed to the stage to introduce ‘American Mary’.

Exuding the charisma of rock stars as much as film makers, their excitement at being here was palpable and they made no attempt to hide the gratitude they feel towards their UK fans. The twins exuberance and warmth is off the charts where these shores are concerned – the UK is where their debut movie, the unexpectedly sweet ‘Dead Hooker In A Trunk’, really took off. We were also the first territory to see ‘Hooker’ released on DVD.

I like ‘Dead Hooker In A Trunk’ a lot but there’s no way I could have predicted their next film would be as self assured, affecting and genre-warping as ‘American Mary’.

And, before we get into the review, even though yesterday I described ‘Sleep Tight’ as my favourite movie of FrightFest… well, actually, it’s tied for first place with this one. They’re completely different propositions so it’s unfair to compare them although both stories are excellently crafted descents into a mind that’s unravelling. But where ‘Sleep Tight’ is all about slowly creeping suspense, ‘American Mary’ is like stepping into an elevator just as the cable snaps and we plummet faster and faster towards the mouth of Hell.

Mary Mason (a brilliant star-making performance by Katharine Isabelle) is a gifted medical student who needs to find a quick-fix way out of her money troubles. But she’s an independent woman with a sense of pride, and a certain iciness when we first meet her, so she’s not about to accept her Nana’s offer of help. Instead, she applies for a job at the local strip joint where an uncomfortable interview with club owner Billy (Antonio Cupo) is cut short by the news that one of Billy’s henchmen needs some urgent medical attention in the back room. Billy, who’s already taken a good look at Mary’s CV, enlists her medical expertise and offers her $5000 to get the job done with no questions asked. Reluctantly, Mary goes to work and begins patching up the horribly injured thug.

No sooner has Mary returned home, and barely has time to throw up, than she receives a visit from Beatress (Tristan Risk), a dancer at Billy’s club who has been surgically altered to look like a strangely lopsided version of 1930’s cartoon heroine Betty Boop. In fact, Beatress channels Boop right down to her sing-song voice and sashaying stride.

Beatress knows all about Mary’s handiwork earlier that night and she’s willing to pay Mary a lot of money to perform some extreme nipping and tucking on her friend Ruby RealGirl (Paula Lindberg), an underground fashion designer whose ambition is to become a human doll. At first Mary balks, but Beatress is persistent. She’s even arranged after hours access to the operating theatre in the local veterinary clinic, so Mary will have a place to work. Reluctantly, Mary agrees to at least meet with Ruby to discuss her requirements.

When her work on Ruby RealGirl proves a success, Mary quickly becomes the go-to surgeon in the lucrative and illegal underground of extreme body modification. To begin with, Mary isn’t overly comfortable with what she’s doing but it more than pays the bills. But then, when her med school teacher invites Mary to a private party and something despicably ugly happens that forces Mary to quit her studies, she quickly changes perspective and launches herself full-tilt into the body modification universe. But it’s not the vanilla world of tribal scarring and nipple piercing we’re talking about here, Mary’s portfolio begins with tongue dividing and climbs all the way up to voluntary amputation.

Of course, she needs a little practice – just so she’s got some photos for her brochure – and, let’s just say, the scuzz who ruined Mary’s party gets to regret it in a very painful, permanent and long-term fashion. And even then, Mary leaves him hanging.

‘Bloody’ Mary , as she’s known on the circuit, is suddenly queen of the body-mod scene but success doesn’t bring happiness and Mary is rapidly becoming more and more isolated from herself. Billy, Beatress and ‘minder’ Lance Delgreggo (Twan Hollliday) are the only people she can really confide in and even small-time hood Billy, for whom Mary has become something of an unattainable wet-dream, is a little bit afraid of her.

And then, during a vicious twist I didn’t see coming, Mary’s world is torn apart as suddenly and precisely as a scalpel slices flesh and Mary might just discover that she carries deeper scars than any of her ‘patients’ and the one person she can’t suture back together may very well be herself.

‘American Mary’ blew my mind. Jen and Sylvia Soska have delivered a truly beautiful, deliriously brilliant movie that could easily have fallen apart in lesser hands. Mary is a remarkable creation whose character takes an arc we can completely understand, even though most of us will never know anything about the midnight world she inhabits. She’s never unbelievable, her motivations are always absolutely clear, and even though she (might) take matters a few steps too far, she never loses our sympathy.

And I just wanted to add, without getting into spoilerville, that how Mary takes care of the event that begins at the party was a wonderfully refreshing antidote to the crass approach other filmmakers have used when dealing with similar subject matter. This is horror with a heart and a mind, and the Soskas never take a cheap and predictable way out.

Katharine Isabelle, who briefly took the trip from obscurity to genre superstar in the acclaimed but still criminally underrated ‘Ginger Snaps’ (2000) and, although she’s appeared in a lot of films and TV shows since then has never re-attained that status, deserves a place in the pantheon of horror greats purely on the strength of this performance alone. I know that sounds gushy but wait until you see the film. Mary is one of the most perfect of monsters because we can appreciate how she was created and what she must do to survive. It’s absolutely perfect that ‘Universal’ – original caretakers of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman – are the studio distributing this film.

I also want to briefly mention Burlesque dancer Tristan Risk’s scene stealing performance as Beatress. Beatress is a terrific character, a touchingly distorted homage to Betty Boop whose scenes with Mary crackle with truth, humour and vulnerability. Beatress is so endearingly three dimensional she could easily carry a film on her own. Most movies are lucky to have one stand-out character. ‘American Mary’ has the double whammy of Mary and Beatress, two completely original and multi-textured characters who truly confirm the Soska sisters’ film making genius.

In fact, Jen and Sylvia have their own cameo during the film as decadent twins who employ Mary to make them even closer. It’s a very cool and assured performance, and their unexpected appearance mid-story was hugely appreciated by the FrightFest crowd.

The only thing about ‘American Mary’ that I find unbelievable is the sisters’ anecdote, told to us after the screening, that they wrote the script in only two weeks after pitching the story to Eli Roth and lying to him that a screenplay already existed but they’d just like to check it for typos before sending it over!

Jen and Sylvia, whose ‘Twisted Twins’ ident has got to be the coolest in the film industry, are about to see their cachet as directors and screenwriters go stratospheric. Make sure you’re there to witness the launch, and hang on for what I’m certain is going to be a great ride.

‘American Mary’ is far more than cutting edge horror, it leaves most other genre movies splayed open with their entrails hanging out. Miss it at your peril.

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white