Jen and Sylvia Soska will tell you how being identical twins is like having a VIP pass to some of the weirdest shit you'll ever see, so they weren't short on material for their movies.
I was equal parts intrigued and nervous to speak with Jen and Sylvia Soska—aka “The Twisted Twins”—in person. I had watched their cameo in their latest film, American Mary, where they play a pair of Goth twins who have their arms removed and switched so that they’ll remain connected no matter what. I met them at a sound studio in Santa Monica where they were doing postproduction on See No Evil 2, their first directing gig with Lion’s Gate and WWE, which was a long way from not being able to afford food while they were making the film.
But they were warm and enthusiastic, talking over each other to tell me how thrilled they were about having come so far so quickly. After the years of financial and emotional hardship they had endured trying to sell their first two films, American Mary and before that, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, Jen and Sylvia were delighted and shocked when Lion’s Gate contacted them. In the early years of their film career, they had paid the bills by taking any acting gig they could get. “Sexy twins, sexy clones, sorority twins,” Sylvia remembered how much she hated it. “Slutty Martian,” added Jen, “Slutty Martian was the one that really bugged me. Even the Martian has to be a slut.” Sometimes all the money would go into their films, and they literally lived on bread alone. They still seemed in shock as they told me about their first call with the studio executives who had seen their film and wanted to bring those same qualities to See No Evil 2.
American Mary is not exactly a slasher—in fact, it’s difficult to say how to categorize it. In your typical slasher, there is often a “final girl”, who is the only person to survive to the end of a film. You can usually recognize her by her conservative or boyish clothing. In American Mary, plenty of slashing occurs, but it lacks the traditionally predictable plot, and the main character, Mary, is a loose cannon—you have no idea what will happen to her. It covers a lot of ground, much of it based on real phenomena, like the body modification community.
“I’m so tired of seeing the same shit over and over again, especially in North America, they have this really tired formula for horror. Where it’s the slasher thing and you can guess who dies and in what order,” Jen told me. “We have the beautiful blonde, we have the final girls, we have the kind of slutty female character. But we take those stereotypes and shatter every single one of them. You can tell it’s by people who love horror because there are the character types that you traditionally see. But we totally turn those types on their head.”
The film starts in a typically mundane way: Mary, a starving medical student specializing in surgery, answers a Craigslist ad for a seedy strip joint to help pay her tuition and her phone bill. Plausible. But you wouldn’t guess that she walks out of the strip club with $5000 without even having to get naked—our heroin performs emergency surgery on one of the club’s frequent torture victims. Mary quickly earns a reputation among the “body mod” community, and the clients pour in with disturbing but lucrative requests. Her first such client, Ruby, wants “some skin removed,” specifically her nipples and everything “extra” on her genitals. Ruby is tired of being sexualized and degraded, and wants to experience the same freedom a doll has. You wouldn’t guess how Mary begins to identify with Ruby: the professor she most admires sees her improved financial situation and assumes she has become a prostitute. He thinks this gives him an excuse to invite her to a party, drug her and rape her.
American Mary depicts some pretty disgusting stuff, but with an artfully restrained hand. Mary wields her scalpel in an almost loving way during the surgery scenes, which are as fascinating as they are off-putting. Their film is a bit rough around the edges, but it’s an independent horror. Their parents had to refinance their house in order for them to finish it. Seedy, minimally lit low-budget locations fit the atmosphere of the film well. Amidst the hokier bits are many disturbing but strangely beautiful moments, like when Mary lies staring at the ceiling and covered in blood as she sews her own chest back together.
Unlike American Mary, the See No Evil series falls firmly within the slasher genre, but See No Evil 2 will play with the limits of that genre.
The Soska Sisters have a personal stake in breaking down these stereotypes. Their experiences in the film industry have given them too many reasons to rebel against the idea that you can ever know what to expect from a woman by looking at her.
From the start of their career, the sisters would meet with men—always men—with hopes of improving their professional prospects, and found that these men had expectations that they were not at all prepared to meet, and that had nothing to do with their talents as filmmakers. “Every fucking hollywood cliché,” Sylvia described them to me as she told me one of these men had actually invited them to his house late at night, where they were both drugged.
“It’s a really scary situation,” Sylvia continued. “I find it’s a lot of people at the lower levels and you can see these leeches, because a lot of the time they’re failed directors themselves. Failed filmmakers. They’ve never gotten to where they are and they’re just angry people and what they do is they want to have power of probably women that rejected them their whole lives so they have a negative connotation on them.”
While that was a scary situation, Sylvia expressed how hard it was for them in general because of how easy it is to fetishize identical twins.
“We always read comic books and watched horror movies and we were like ‘I wanna look like that!’ and so we dressed a certain way. And people judge on appearances right away. And they see the two of us and they’re like, ‘oh! I’m gonna fuck ‘em!” Sylvia told me, “And the rudeness. The people insinuating that if I did fuck them I would get a certain job or something like that.”
The financial strain, and the pressure to use sex to relieve that strain, inspired the plot for American Mary. Mary felt pressured to work in a strip club to pay her tuition bill, while Jen and Sylvia had to deal with men who suggested that the sisters would have to sleep with them to get film work.“It became so therapeutic. Everything we were going through went into the script,” said Sylvia. Even the turning point of the film, the rape scene, was based on an experience that they narrowly escaped. “Thank god I have her”, Sylvia said, looking at Jen “We’ve both been drugged before but there’s two of us so we got our asses out of there fast.”
Although the rape is vital to the plot, Jen insists that American Mary isn’t just a rape revenge film. There were a number of factors that broke Mary down. “Everyone can feel the clamp of the recession. And unfortunately the easiest way for a woman to make money is to do something sexual,” said Jen, “She doesn’t want to do it but she wants to be a surgeon so badly that she would literally do anything.” That’s why American Mary differs from other rape revenge horrors, which tend to flatten other aspects of the female protagonist’s identity.
“It’s a literal and figurative rape,” said Sylvia, “Everything she wanted is taken away from her.” It’s not just her body that is violated, but also her sense of place in the professional community she’s passionate about. To emphasize this, Jen and Sylvia chose to shoot the rape scene in a way that focused more on the emotional violation than the physical violation.
“It’s not a sexy moment. I thought it was so much more powerful to just hang on her eyes and that trapped awful experience for the film. Instead of some kind of pseudo porno thing,” said Jen, “I find that a lot of [rape revenge] films are very exploitative of women, especially for that scene. Where it’s made to be sexually gratifying for men with the moaning and the tits out and the nudity. And we had some fights while we were making it because they wanted us to put nudity in.”
The producers complained that there wasn’t nudity in the script, and when Sylvia pointed out that there actually was, “There’s a whole frame of just a tit and Mary’s hand is on it for the nipple removal.” But that’s not sexy, they insisted, “I was like ‘you know what, guys? This isn’t sexy tit movie.”
The lack of, well, “sexy” made American Mary a hard sell. But once it was successful, producers began calling the Soska sisters asking them to make another slasher-type film about a female surgery student. They weren’t interested—they wanted to move on to new things. When they got the opportunity to direct See No Evil 2, they were ready to do whatever it took to make the film that they wanted it to be. “I was ready to fight. I was always ready to fight,” said Sylvia. But they didn’t have to. The producers were receptive to their vision of a slasher with rich and complex characters, the type of characters audiences sympathize with or female characters mirroring the modern woman’s struggles. “What I’ve always liked about horror and the whole ‘final girl’ mentality is you see women overcoming extreme situations, which in life is something women always do, but we’re so polite and well mannered we rarely draw attention to how much ass we kick all the time,” said Sylvia.
Jen and Sylvia might not look like the part for a typical final girl, but they’ve successfully tackled many of Hollywood’s horrors.
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