DIY – American Mary and Excision

Whether you go to the cinema to see an 80 minute film which took a million dollars to make, or a film which runs over three hours and cost the equivalent of the GDP of a small nation, your ticket will cost the same. It hardly seems fair – a luxury hardcover doesn’t retail for the same as a basic paperback – and given it can take longer to get to the theatre and back than to watch a short movie, potentially not so much reward for the effort.

Excision posterWell there once was a solution. Cinemas showed double bills (and movie theaters screened double features). Routinely you could see two shortish, low budget horror films or comedies for the price of one. Both movies and a short interval totaled about the same amount of time as an epic, and cost a lot less to make. Running time wasn’t an issue and the finances worked for the distributors and film companies.

Now we are sometimes expected to pay high ticket prices for 80 minutes of entertainment. With a double bill even if you didn’t like the first film there was always the possibility the second one would be great. And double features didn’t always mean cheap. Sometimes they meant reissued A pictures. Here’s a selection of double bills I saw during the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s: Carrie & Piranha, Alien & The Fog, The Humanoid & The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Taxi Driver & Midnight Express, The Elephant Man & Time After Time, Blazing Saddles & Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Welcome to Blood City & Sweeney 2, Silent Movie & High Anxiety, Star Wars & The Empire Strikes Back, Superman & Superman II, Raiders of the Lost Ark & Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and various permutations of James Bond movies. Bringing back the double bill might be a perfect way to attract attention to some films which currently  only find a home on DVD/Blu-ray/download/streaming…

What made me think of all this was seeing two low budget American horror films from last year which would have made a perfect double feature. Together they run just over three hours. In Excision AnnaLynne McCord is Pauline, a 17 year old high school student with ambitions to become a surgeon. The problem is her unstable personality and anti-social behaviour rule out any possibility of getting into medical school. Over in American Mary Katharine Isabelle is Mary Mason, already at med school, a nice young woman with a shortage of cash which she sets about rectifying by applying for a job as an erotic dancer.

Pauline lives in a perfect American suburb straight out of Desperate Housewives. Her mother, played against type with great verve by Traci Lords, could be sister to Bree Van De Kamp. Like Stephen King’s Carrie, Pauline is a high school outcast. Unlike Carrie she is boldly forthright when she wants something, as when she sets out to lose her virginity. The film plays like a troubled-teen black comedy for much of its length, the horror coming from short scenes showing what is going on in Pauline’s bizarre fantasy life. Her imagination is dark, bloody and very twisted. The scenes are the most visually imaginative in the film, but including any stills here would push Amazing Stories right out of the family friendly category. Some of the imagery is among the most disturbing I have seen in any film. Excision is not for the squeamish, faint of heart or easily offended, but it follows its logic relentlessly, tracking Pauline’s schism with reality and into amateur surgery with horrific consequences. There is strong support from John Waters as a local minister, and Roger Bart (Of Desperate Housewives) as Pauline’s father. Excision cuts to the quick in a concise 81 minutes and looks simply terrific, demonstrating that low budget doesn’t have to be cheap. You may be put in mind of a Polanski’s Repulsion, but with far more repulsive imagery.

American Mary posterMary Mason soon finds that illicit body modification surgery is much more lucrative than nightclub work. American Mary wears its influences on its sleeve and its exploration of extreme body modification subculture takes the film into interesting areas reminiscent of early David Cronenberg. The film is a Canadian production written and directed by twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska. After an intriguing set-up the Soska’s introduce a second plot which takes the film into much less creative, and far more unpalatable, Eli Roth ‘torture-porn’ territory. I didn’t know it while watching, but wasn’t the slightest bit surprised to see the end credits dedicate the film to Roth.

The two main plot elements don’t jelly into a cohesive whole and American Mary makes several awkward tonal shifts, becoming ever more implausible. Isabelle is a good actress but struggles to convince us of Mary’s character ‘development’. Seemingly completely at a loss as to how to end the picture, the Soska’s settle on a woman in peril finale so perfunctorily handled as to resemble Brian De Palma on a very off day. As directors the Soska’s show a tremendous amount of promise, but they have a huge amount to learn as writers. In terms of structure and believable storytelling American Mary is a (bloody) mess.

Two examples of non-supernatural body horror on very similar themes but with very different approaches make an unusual double feature. A trick was missed not unleashing them on unsuspecting audiences together.

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