December 8, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Seen as a pair of twisted twins in their horror movie American Mary, Jen and Sylvia Soska are an unnervingly creepy duo.
But behind the camera, as the directors and writers of the film, they are utter charmers, at least according to actress Katherine Isabelle, who was easily enchanted into playing the titular blood-drenched, scalpel-wielding anti-heroine by the 30-year-old sisters.
"When I first met them, we were supposed to meet for sushi at a normal dinner time around 6 o'clock, and we ended up going out till, like 4 in the morning, having a total blast," Isabelle says. "We were, like, instantly best friends.
"They are so fascinating to be around, to watch their brains work," she says. "You fall in love with them instantly and they inspire passion in everyone else. We all really, really wanted to make them happy."
It's fair to say making movies make the Soska sisters very happy indeed. The Vancouver-spawned siblings first exploded on the scene in 2011 with a lurid $2,500 dark comedy titled Dead Hooker in a Trunk. From there, they looked to Hollywood to solidify a career, but the experience of taking meetings with creepy Hollywood power players left an imprint on their second film, American Mary, in which Isabelle's medical student is abused by the "respectable" medical establishment and takes refuge in the underground world of body modification.
"We were going through so many struggles and we were incredibly poor and we didn't know if we were going to make anything of ourselves," Sylvia says in a phone interview from Toronto.
"And we were meeting monsters in the industry."
They did win a friend in heavyweight horror filmmaker Eli Roth (Hostel) who invited Sylvia to pitch their next project at a point in their lives when the sisters were attending to an ailing family member in the hospital.
Around the same time, the siblings had also become obsessed with the practice of body modification, which takes ordinary tattooing and piercing practices to corporeal extremes. (Participants are not as likely to get their tongues pierced so much as split down the middle, as you will see in the film.)
"I stumbled upon body modification as I was reading a story online about two identical twin brothers that had swapped limbs," Sylvia says.
"One of the brothers had his arm amputated and then grafted onto his brother's chest, so that one brother was left with three arms, and then the other brother with three arms had his ring finger amputated and added to his brother's hand to make an elongated finger.
"There's a photo diary of this and a letter from the boys explaining: You would have to be an identical twin to understand why someone would do something like this."
The story proved to be a hoax, but it filled both sisters with a combination of revulsion and fascination.
"I don't think anything scared me so much," Sylvia says. "I didn't even realize that such a thing existed. But my mom always taught me: If something scares you, learn about it because the more you learn about something, the less scary it will be.
"So Jennifer and I became obsessed with body modification and this fascination turned to admiration. We would go onto different body-mod sites and we would pretend to have procedures done just to have this communication.
"It was just something we had so much fun with it, but I always had it in the back of my mind to make something of it."
When Roth invited the pitch, the body-mod obsession, their observations about the straight medical world and their Hollywood experienced synthesized into the story for American Mary.
"We started using (body modification) as an analogy for everything we had been going through," Sylvia says. "We used mainstream medicine as an analogy for people we were meeting in the industry."
Paralleling the dynamic in the film, the straight Hollywood establishment unnerved the sisters while they found themselves more comfortable among the fringe elements.
"We were being embraced by people in the horror community," Sylvia says. "So we used the body modification community as an analogy for that, where Mary is trying to make it in a certain field but she finds respect in a place where she doesn't really expect it. That's where that whole thing came from."
If the movie's plot seems sick and outrageous, for the Soskas, it's intimate and personal.
"Normally, I'm a very private person and I wouldn't want to be that naked and honest about something," Sylvia says. "But I had no time and Jennifer and I threw everything in there and it became this really therapeutic experience."
As far as the division of labour goes, Jennifer jokes that, on the set, she's the affable Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) type and Sylvia's modus operandi is more akin to the cerebral Lars von Trier (Antichrist).
"I'll put the heart in and Syl will tear it out and stomp on it," Jennifer says. "If you see something upsetting in the film, you can almost guarantee it was Sylvia's idea that put it in there. And if there's a moment of levity right after, that's me.
"You can break someone's heart, but, my God, tell a joke afterwards."
After the 9 p.m. screening of American Mary on Friday at 9 p.m., the Soska sisters will participate in a Q&A with local critic and horror aficionado Caelum Vatnsdal.
Late Night Horrors
American Mary (Aug. 1-3)
Sibling filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska revive the "body horror" subgenre pioneered by David Cronenberg (Rabid) for their own twisted purposes with this shocker that functions as a revenge thriller and a twisted variation of a female empowerment melodrama. It's easily the most exciting Canadian horror film since Ginger Snaps.
Mary (Ginger's Katherine Isabelle) is an impoverished med student picked on by her instructor Dr. Grant (David Lovgren), a hectoring bully whose interest in Mary has a decidedly creepy vibe. When she accepts an invitation to a cocktail party at his apartment, it leads to a trauma that compels Mary out of med school and into the profitable underground realm of body modification.
All the while, Mary works on her own vengeful project under the guardianship of a strip-club owner (Antonio Cupo) who helps facilitate Mary's activities even as he carries a torch for this angel of no-mercy.
Befitting its rarely bestowed R rating, American Mary is often very grisly indeed, but your strong constitution will be rewarded with a movie of considerable wit, surreal spectacle and a provocative degree of sympathy for its she-devil. HHH1/2
John Dies at the End (Aug. 8-10)
Don Coscarelli's adaptation of the cult novel by David Wong is bizarre and funny: equal parts drug movie and sci-fi adventure.
Dave Wong (Chase Williamson) meets with a reporter named Arnie (Paul Giamatti) ostensibly to blow the lid off a drug called Soy Sauce that allows its consumers alarming insight into -- everything. (Dave demonstrates by telling Arnie what he dreamed the previous night.) Turns out Soy Sauce is strong stuff, kind of like a sentient hash oil.
Once dosed, Dave and his friend John (Rob Mayes) are obliged to get to the bottom of things, a prospect that takes them through time, space, and into an alternative universe where everyone wears masks and only the men wear clothes.
JDATE is not a movie that ties up all its plot points into a neat little narrative bundle, but that's one of the things that makes it such an enjoyably seditious entertainment.
Its freewheeling charm is matched by its two male leads. Williamson and Mayes somehow manage the neat trick of playing omniscient wiseasses without being obnoxious. HHH1/2
The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (Aug. 16-17, 22)
God is the ultimate bogeyman and angels are his sinister minions in this moody and -- literally -- iconoclastic film by Canadian filmmaker Rodrigo Gudino.
Leon (Aaron Poole) returns home to pack up his estranged mother's belongings after her death. And even while he is alone in the house, he is haunted by the memories of his mother's involvement with a religious cult with an unnatural focus on angels. It turns out he may not be alone after all.
This is pretty much the antithesis of the average horror movie, in that it eschews the gore and lurid content typical of the genre for a more atmospheric approach.
It has its problems, including Gudino's choice to use the voice but not the body of Vanessa Redgrave to play the role of the deceased mom. Instead of a slam-bang ending, Gudino lets all the film's hard-won tension dissipate into puzzling enigma.
But respect must be paid to the intelligence behind the film, an increasingly rare quality in the genre. This is existential horror in the truest sense of the word. HHH
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 1, 2013 C1