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Horror film about underground world of body modification a cut above

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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.

 

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 1, 2013 C1

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