'Twisted Twin' Sisters Hope To Re-Invent Horror

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It's the season for horror films, and one that is making the rounds of festivals called Scream Fest and Fright Fest is American Mary. The film is directed by twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska who specialize in horror films made without heavy dependence on CGI. In their latest film, they explore ideas about women's bodies as well as blood and gore.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Tis the season for horror movies, and Canadian twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska are doing their part with the new film "American Mary." It's been playing the film festival circuit at events with names like Fright Fest and Screamfest and coming soon Shudderfest. From member station KPBS, Beth Accomando reports on those two specimens of the rare species: the female horror director.

BETH ACCOMANDO, BYLINE: When Jen and Sylvia Soska were little girls, they weren't playing with Barbies. They were playing with spiders or huddled in the horror section of their video store.

SYLVIA SOSKA: We would go around looking at the back of boxes for the bloodiest things, with the goriest messes, and we'd be like, oh, this is a good one, and we'd beg our mom and never, never, never let us watch one until "Poltergeist."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "POLTERGEIST")

HEATHER O'ROURKE: (as Carol Anne Freeling) They're here.

ACCOMANDO: And that, says Sylvia Soska, changed her life. The film terrified her, but her mother calmed her fears by explaining the art of special effects.

SOSKA: She told me everything I saw was systematically made by very talented artists with the intention of scaring me, and I was like, wait a minute. These people's job is scaring people?

ACCOMANDO: That's the job the Soskas wanted. But horror tends to be male dominated, and it relies on tried and true formulas. The Soskas embrace the darkness in ways that can jolt even jaded horror fans. Their latest film, "American Mary," tackles a subject that's rarely discussed: body modification. In the film, Katharine Isabelle plays Mary Mason, a med student whose financial hardship leads her into the lucrative world of underground surgery. Her clients ask her to split their tongues or surgically attach horns to their foreheads.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN MARY")

KATHARINE ISABELLE: (as Mary Mason) So what are we doing here?

ACCOMANDO: Ruby wants to look like a doll but can't find a plastic surgeon willing to snip and stitch to her specifications.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN MARY")

PAULA LINDBERG: (as Ruby Realgirl) No one looks at dolls in a sexual manner, do you know why?

ISABELLE: (as Mary Mason) I don't know why, I guess, because they don't have all their parts.

LINDBERG: (as Ruby Realgirl) Exactly.

ACCOMANDO: Beatrix is another character with extreme body modification. She wants to look exactly like Betty Boop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN MARY")

TRISTAN RISK: (as Beatrix) I'm lucky enough to be able to afford to make myself look on the outside the way I feel on the inside. Fourteen different surgeries to getting to look like this, some going out of the country to find the best doctor for the job.

ACCOMANDO: A lot of people would look at these characters as freaks, but the Soskas embrace them. For Jen Soska, what's really freakish are the more commonplace plastic surgeries.

JEN SOSKA: If someone gets breast implants or gets a face-lift, sure, you can say it's for themselves, and it's for their self-esteem, but it's also building into what society, you know, accepts as a form of beauty. They're not doing it just because it's something they purely enjoy. They're doing it because they're fitting into what everyone wants you to look like.

ACCOMANDO: In many ways, the Soskas' "American Mary" takes its cue from Todd Browning and his 1932 film "Freaks."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FREAKS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) (Unintelligible). We'll make her one of us.

ACCOMANDO: Both films depict outcasts with genuine compassion. Browning mixed actors with real sideshow circus performers, while "American Mary" uses people with real surgical changes mixed in with actors using prosthetics.

SOSKA: You're never going to be 100 percent sure when you're looking at a prosthetic in this film or if you're looking at somebody that actually has something physically changed about them.

ACCOMANDO: The makeup and surgery effects in "American Mary" were done by Todd Masters of MastersFX. He says the Soskas are really savvy filmmakers.

TODD MASTERS: They were really smart about how and when they reveal blood or blood gags. And blood gags and effects and things like this are almost like punches in a boxing fight, you know, and you want to play them at a specific time to get most impact.

ACCOMANDO: A lot of horror films fall into the rut of remakes, found footage and CGI gore, but these twisted twins want to show that all horror needs is a woman's touch to set it on a fresh new course. For NPR News, I'm Beth Accomando.

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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