Twisted sisters: Jen and Sylvia Soska scare people for a living

Award-winning horror film American Mary screening at Rio Theatre

"THERE'S something wrong with your daughters."

The call came from the principal's office. They were only children, but the North Vancouver twins had been disrupting their elementary school, filling up note paper with horrific literature and using up their red crayons drawing murder victims.

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"Are they not getting straight A's?" their mother replied. "I don't see a problem."

Seated behind matching drinks in a café on Lonsdale Avenue, Jen and Sylvia Soska are positively chipper as they reflect on American Mary, their sophomore film about a medical student's journey through the world of body modification.

Resembling the cheerful nieces of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, the Soskas trade quips on censorship and the void of dynamic women in modern horror films while finding time to opine on whether or not Wolverine would be a suitable boyfriend for Jean Grey ("Absolutely") and the brilliance of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Before they were allowed to watch scary movies, their mother made them read the books. As luck would have it, the twisted twins stumbled upon their mother's cache of Stephen King novels.

"There were some really foul things in Stephen King books and my mom was always like, 'If you don't understand something, come and ask me.' So, at 10 I was having conversations about pedophiles and murders and my mom would be very eloquently explaining it to me," Sylvia recalls.

"It caused us to not only have a real love of horror and comedic horror, but it also had us writing and reading at a really high level at a super young age," Jen agrees.

Their love of horror was crystallized at the age of 10 when the twins begged their mother to let them watch Poltergeist.

"You can't think of a horror movie more designed to just scare the shit out of kids," Jen says, recalling the terror of going to bed nestled alongside her suddenly demonic-seeming clown doll that night.

After feigning courage for nearly two hours the Soskas had a life-changing conversation with their mother.

"She did something that would forever change the way we looked at horror movies," Sylvia says. "She sat us down and she explained what we had actually seen. She explained the director, the script, the sets, and the prosthetic artists."

A singular realization dawned on the twins: scaring people was a job.

Like any artisan, the twins set about learning their craft, sometimes by scaring each other.

After reading 1408, a twisted Stephen King short story about a hotel room with a blood-spattered history, Sylvia decided she needed to share it.

"It was pitch black," Jen remembers. "I moved to turn the light on and she says, 'Don't turn the light on, I want to read you a story."

"I didn't want her to read it the wrong way," Sylvia explains, her voice taut with just a dash of apology.

Growing up in the early 1990s, the twisted twins

educated themselves at the horror section of their local video store, piecing together storylines of forbidden movies by examining the stills on the back of VHS boxes.

"When we saw something really graphic that looked real, we were obsessed with 'how did they do it?'" Jen says. "Is that what it actually looks like when you cut somebody open? And that might sound a little bit morbid, but it's just curiosity."

That curiosity eventually led to a fascination with body modification.

"My mom taught us, 'If something scares you it's a lack of education so learn as much as you can about it and then you won't be scared anymore,'" Sylvia says.

Their fear of body modification ultimately evolved into a film that views sweeping changes of the physical form as a form of self-expression

The movie made me squirm, cringe, and struggle to keep my eyes on the screen, but it also offered a surprising amount of tact when dealing with its subject.

God shouldn't be able to decide what everyone looks like, according to one of the film's characters.

It's a film that almost didn't happen as the sisters became mired in an ultimately successful struggle to sell their debut film, Dead Hooker in a Trunk.

The twins had been visiting a loved one and were seated in the hospital's critical ward. Out of money and ideas, they spoke with horror maestro and Hostel director Eli Roth.

"We were struggling so hard to sell this movie," Sylvia says. "And I was talking to Eli one day and we were broke, we couldn't afford food, let alone rent."

Roth encouraged the duo to concentrate on their next movie, which at the time was nonexistent.

Not wanting to disappoint a hero director, Sylvia lied.

"I turned to Jen and I was like, 'I just lied to Eli Roth that we had a movie about body modification.'"

They pumped out a script in two weeks, but investors were scarce.

"The only reason Mary went forward is because my parents, and we've never been rich, they bought their home and on our 20th birthday they saw us struggling to get this movie sold and so they re-mortgaged their house and put six figures into the film as the first investors and then people started coming on board. And thank god, knock on wood, mom and dad aren't losing the house," Sylvia says.

Katharine Isabelle stars as Mary, a surgeon who does her best work in an ebony apron and sleek black gloves.

"She's like the thinking person's scream queen," Jen says, noting the way Isabelle smiles politely without letting the smile reach her eyes as Mary.

Mary is complex, funny and vengeful, and a case could be made that she portrays the movie's heroine and its monster; a horror version of Legally Blonde, according to the twins.

"You see so many flawless female characters . . . they're the girlfriend or they're the nagging wife and you're like 'Who are these people? I think the modern woman is a lot more interesting than we're seeing represented on film," Sylvia explains. "I'm a chick and I know the crazy that goes through my head."

The writer/directors appear in the film as twins who want to be just a little closer, a storyline that mirrors their real relationship.

"Apart we're not even a functional human being. We're like one entity in two bodies," Jen says.

"As similar as we are, it's our differences that really make our work better. . . . Her focus on the art and her dark creativity and mine is on my more whimsical, sentimental side."

"It's because she's 19 minutes younger than me that she still sees hope in the world," Sylvia chimes.

Twinless people are 'normies,' for the duo, a species to be pitied.

American Mary is not for everyone, but everyone with the desire to see it and enough cleverness to get away with watching it has Sylvia's blessing.

"I tried to download my movie this morning, lots of people are seeing it, I'm sure most of them are kids. Doesn't matter," she says.

"When I was a little girl we snuck into the theatre to see movies," Jen says. "That's how you did it, that's how mom did it, that's how grandma did it, and that's how kids will continue to do it."

The movie is scary, but it aspires to be more.

"As weird as it is to say about our horror films, we want to give people more than just a horror film, we want to leave you thinking," Jen says.

The DVD is slated to hit shelves June 18.

jshepherd@nsnews.com

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