Gort vs body modification: We review neo-exploitation flick American Mary

Commander's log, Stardate 11072013.2:

I've lost count of the number of times I've awoken from a drunken night out with Commander Manning only to find myself in darkness with a cracking headache. This time, however, was different. This time, I was unable to move.

"Hello?" I called out. My call was answered by Gort's robotic voice. He switched on the lights and I found myself on a surgical table. Gort explained that he had seen Robocop for the first time the night before and had concluded that I would be more efficient in my role if I had a few cyborg parts.

"Stay very still," he said, "this will hurt a lot."


There is something of an obsession with grindhouse cinema right now. Many directors got their introduction to film in seedy, sticky, sweaty theatres showing double bills of movies that didn't so much push the boundaries of good taste as shove them to the ground, pin them down and burp in their face. There was clearly a lot that was good about these movies - they showed black and/or female characters as badass heroes, they didn't shy away from gratuitous sex in a prudish age and they were dedicated to giving audiences what they wanted to see. Unfortunately, they were also cheap, clumsy, misogynist and a little bit racist.

Rodriguez, Tarantino and Roth have pretty much built an empire on neo-grindhouse movies by turning the rawness of the medium into arthouse. As such, it's a shame that most of the results are unwatchable dross. Even the successes are flash-in-the-pan cheap shots at the box office, ironic pastiches or only carried through by the talents of the auteurs (we don't like Pulp Fiction - sue us). Directors like Joseph Guzman and Timo Vuorensola have been more successful at recreating genuine exploitation movies in the modern age, but they also carried through the more unsightly aspects of the genre. Jen and Sylvia Soska, on the other hand, are trying to bring back the exploitation movie as entertainment, but keep it challenging, intelligent and not remotely politically incorrect.

"It's hugely refreshing to come out of an exploitation movie without feeling remotely offended by any of the content"

Katherine Isabelle from Ginger Snaps is American Mary's titular medical student looking to become a surgeon. Desperate for money, she auditions at the friendliest seedy strip joint you'll ever see on film. The owner offers her $5,000 to operate on an anonymous, bleeding dude who he'd rather keep alive. To her surprise the surgery is not only successful, but she suddenly finds herself in a great deal of demand for providing under-the-counter surgical procedures to dubious characters, particularly body-modification fetishists seeking illegal cosmetic surgery. Things step up a notch when Isabelle is date raped by her professor. Traumatised, she  devolves into a cold-blooded sociopath and uses both the assistance of her dodgy friends and her skill at grizzly body modification to take revenge on her attacker.

Is it safe?
We've seen the whole 'raped woman goes feral and takes revenge on her rapists' plot so many times it's become a cliche. Unfortunately, most movies that go down this path either come across as a rape fantasy with a half-arsed moral conclusion (Last House On The Left) or go the whole hog and blame the incident on the victim (Straw Dogs). American Mary, however, has one of the most chaste rape scenes in cinema history, conveying all the horror of the assault simply through a few close-up shots of the exceptional Isabelle's face. From there, the Soska sisters cast their heroine as a sympathetic villain, both terrifying and relatable. Lesser directors may have taken this as an excuse to attack the male gender, but instead Isabelle enters a remarkably sweet, if twisted, romance with the strip club owner.

It's hugely refreshing to come out of an exploitation movie without feeling remotely offended by any of the content. The Soskas manage to not only prove it can be done, but that it can be a strength. If you want a trashy, surreal, avante garde movie that you don't feel the moral compulsion to justify, you should be following the Soskas' career.