Some great movies, and a whole lot of terrible ones, seem to begin with one image. With regard to “American Mary,” that image the voluptuous Katherine Isabelle, clad in form-hugging lingerie, clasping a scalpel, blood leaking into her cleavage, an item of titillation that just about covers the singular kink-and-horror appeal of this sideshow oddity, showing up ten minutes into the film. It’s the creation of a tableau more than the promise of a story, the sort of imprint that remains over the course of this film, which never begins to capture the “why” of that image’s core appeal beyond superficial depth.
“American Mary” boasts a status as sort of a genuine article, making full use of the appeal of Isabelle, a scream queen veteran of “Ginger Snaps” and “Freddy Vs. Jason.” Here she’s Mary, a buxom, desperate medical student failing to pay her bills on time and at the mercy of her overly grabby professor. Surfing the internet lands her in a gentleman’s club, where the revelation that she’s a med student gets her an invitation to a backroom, where people who don’t pay up mob debts suffer grisly fates. Within a day, word gets out that there’s a med student out there skilled but cash-strapped, and it brings out the local, ahem, color.
The first is Beatrice, a woman who has gotten surgery to become more doll-like, supposedly de-sexualizing her in the eyes of men. Her sing-song voice and mask-like visage immediately paints her as some sort of out-of-the-box slasher villain, but despite her Betty Boop affectations, she’s simply a lonely woman with a very specific problem. Beatrice’s life companion Ruby needs a similar surgery, a radical body modification that no medical professional would ever entertain. Ten thousand dollars later, the surgery is complete, and a thankful Beatrice is now Mary’s accidental best friend.
Mary soon learns that Beatrice is the first, with a long line of interested parties seeking all sorts of unsanctioned body manipulation. By day she’s attending medical school, but by night, she’s the town’s most notorious “slasher,” as the surgeons refer to themselves. A party with more legally-inclined doctors reveals that the medical professionals have more screws loose than the average body-mod supporter, one of them cackling as he admits, “I cut people up for a living!“ That night, Mary finds herself a victim of sexual assault, drugged by her peers to the point where she has no memory of the event, while a tape makes its way around the community like the loaded MacGuffin it is.
The rest of the film seems to be building to a collision between that footage and the unraveling of Mary’s highly lucrative side operation, though “American Mary” seems less motivated by story structure than by showcasing an open appreciation for diverse, personality-driven plastic surgery that straddles the line between believable and horrific. More screen time is granted to sequences like Mary’s appointment with two Russian sisters played by the film’s writer-directors, the Soska Twins, who reveal themselves to be first-grade hams as performers. The radical surgery these two request does nothing to advance the plot, but it’s just one of many additions that establishes “American Mary” as a film that would rather fetishize surgery sequences set to rock music than actually address questions of identity. The credits reveal the film is "For Eli Roth," and like Roth, the statuesque Soskia Twins appear desperate to seem viable in front of the camera as well as behind.
It’s the second half that chucks narrative convention out the window by revealing that the incomplete, momentum-less “American Mary” is all about the shock value of normalizing extreme body modification. Dreams slip into reality and fantasy assumes a nightmarish plausibility as Mary’s rationale melts away; one could argue her transformation into an avenging sadist takes the teeth out of the film’s medical industry critique, turning it into just another gothic story of one who abuses absolute power. Ultimately, “American Mary” simply reveals itself as a film with little on its mind, content to scare rubberneckers into contemplating the backstory of the more outlandish body manipulation jobs they’ve seen in public. A documentary would have sufficed. [C-]