Telling Her Horror Story: Scream Queen Katharine Isabelle Rules

As the title character in, Katharine Isabelle is bloody good.
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As the title character in American Mary, Katharine Isabelle is bloody good.

She certainly makes her spatter mark in a gory story written and directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska, a twisted twin sister act that raises the level of shlock horror to chop-shop-till-you-drop extremes with its clever take on body modification, odd jobs and Doctor Dementos.

For that, the Soskas can thank Isabelle, who kills it with a thrilling, chilling performance as Mary Mason, a struggling med student who eventually makes a risky career move -- precisely hacking off body parts of humans, whether they like it or not.

Isabelle will leave horror devotees bloodthirsty for more after triumphantly returning to this slice-of-life genre. By playing such a vicious vixen, she eclipses her campy, vampy starring role in Ginger Snaps.

Appearing as American Mary 13 years after her Scream Queen debut took on cult-like status, Isabelle (right) is strong, shrewd and sexy, with a sense of humor as dry as the nose-bleed seats in the Rockies. Just combine the physical qualities of a Pulp Fictionalized Uma Thurman (including banging black bangs) with the droll sensibilities and prickly wit of a prime-time Pamela Reed, and get a spicy bloody Mary mix with an ax (or some other cutting edge tool) to grind.

Along with those brutally horrific bookends, more than a hundred other film and television acting credits are on the Canadian's resume (On the Corner, about crack-addicted prostitutes in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighborhood, ranks high on her list).

So don't be alarmed by the true confession the congenial Isabelle made over the phone last week from Los Angeles, where she had just returned from a five-day joy ride with her brother Josh Murray that was capped by two days in Las Vegas.

"Horror movies scare me. I don't really watch them," she revealed with a laugh, perhaps envisioning the mouths of disappointed teenage boys and older hot-blooded males dropping worldwide. "I'm not a big horror genre fan. I like certain classic horror -- like Alien, Jaws, The Exorcist, stuff like that."

Moments later, Isabelle, who (half-kiddingly?) called American Mary "not so much a horror movie as a modern tragedy or demented romantic comedy," decided to clarify her answer.

"It's not that I'm not a fan; it's that I'm a little bit chicken. (laughs) My heart rate goes up and my throat closes and I have anxiety for two hours after. So I tend to stay away." (laughs)

Even watching A Nightmare on Elm Street gave her the creeps while she sat in her trailer learning lines for Freddy vs. Jason, one of many sequels to the Freddy Krueger franchise starter.

But being a scared spectator and playing a frightening part, especially when it's as juicy as American Mary, are at opposite ends of Isabelle's comfort level.

"Shooting a horror movie is completely different than watching one that you have nothing to do with," she said. "(Acting in a film), I know what's happening. I'm laughing at what we're doing behind the scenes. Those are easy to watch. And they're really fun to shoot. Terror is a very basic human emotion. It's driven our society to do all kinds of things for our entire existence."

Isabelle admitted she enjoyed playing Mary Mason more than Ginger Fitzgerald, a plucky high-school outcast who transforms into a real beast after getting attacked by a werewolf. It spawned two additional films with co-actor and fellow Vancouver native Emily Perkins as her put-upon sister. Years later, some brilliant casting director even teamed them up as Selena Gomez's spiteful stepsisters in Another Cinderella Story.

Without naming names (or titles), Isabelle conceded with a laugh that "there's probably several roles I could have lived without doing. I'm a working actor, so I do pretty much whatever comes along because it's my job."

That's landed her in closing credits with a diverse cast of characters, from Academy Award winners Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank (Insomnia) to Katie Holmes (Disturbing Behavior) and Snoop Dogg (Bones).

The daughter of special effects whiz Graeme Murray (The X-Files, Smallville), Katie Murray first hit the silver screen in 1989's Cousins with Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini. Instead of seeing movie stars in her eyes, though, she dreamed of becoming a Teamster after playing poker with a couple of them on the set. About a decade later, 17-year-old Katharine Isabelle starred in Ginger Snaps.

"I had no idea what we were doing," Isabelle said. "I tend to read scripts like the movie's in your head. I never really realized how intense it would be for me with the six-hour prosthetics. ... It was a very exhausting experience. And so I didn't really get to reflect on the enjoyment of it.

"Mary, on the other hand, was a very physically easy role for me. And I gained two best friends in the Soska sisters out of it. We just had a blast. I know some of the material, some of the subject matter, is a bit intense and horrific, but we had so much fun with it."

The fact that she's in almost every scene of the low-budget production didn't make it any less enjoyable, Isabelle insisted. "Oh, it was easy," she added. "We didn't have enough money to ever go over time, to do overtime. So it was like, 'Oh well, 12 hours, that's it, go home.' " (laughs)

Mary, a "creative artist" who gains hands-on experience as a smooth operator, is a good girl gone bad -- and mad -- and it's a type of role Isabelle relishes.

"I think everyone would like to be allowed to express a bit of the naughtier side of them (laughs) in an environment that's supportive and creative and not judgmental," she said. "It makes for a slightly more normal human being if you get to release that every once in awhile than if you're always keeping it repressed and trying to hide it. ... I enjoy it. And then I can go about my daily life and can be pleasant and gracious and loving everybody." (laughs)

After a limited U.S. theatrical release in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Austin, Texas, last month, American Mary is coming out on DVD/Blu-ray on Tuesday (June 18).

So if mainstream success isn't in the cards (even with a nice mention in The New York Times), possibly an underground audience, much like the one that found Ginger Snaps so outrageously entertaining, will emerge and appreciate Scary Mary's audacity, too.

At the very least, North Americans should consider electing Isabelle (who still goes by Katie in real life) as their next homecoming Scream Queen.
She definitely knows what it takes to become one, accepting the fact that "I am a bit darker and more sarcastic, and I've never been like a girl next door. ...

"I think you have to have a sense of humor about every movie that you're doing," Isabelle said. "Your character needs to be relatable in a way that, even when you're doing the most bizarre things, sometimes a bit of tongue in cheek is necessary to keep up the believability of it. In a way, your character has to go, 'This is completely ridiculous,' and the audience has to know that."

If she feels her career isn't defined by those two scenery-chewing roles, their cathartic nature does provide the opportunity to "get to scream and cry and kill people, while in my normal life, I'm fairly normal. I never yell at anybody."

The best actress at the 2012 Screamfest Film Awards also understands the rabid response to her work from a loyal group of filmgoers.

"I don't know if I'm necessarily attached to the term Scream Queen," Isabelle said. "Although the reason for it is that horror fans are much more enthusiastic than any other fans, except maybe comic movie fans. They're so enthusiastic. We don't get conventions and blogs about Canadian independent family dramas. And I think that has a lot to do with it.

"You know, I've only done three or four (horror films, not counting forgettable fare such as TV's Ogre with best friend and frequent co-star Brendan Fletcher and the direct-to-video Hard Ride to Hell), but the Scream Queen title comes along with the absolute enthusiasm of the fan base. They dress up, they just go all over the place. They're very supportive and, yeah, they're on fire for it, which you don't get with a lot of other genres of film."

Time will tell if blood ties connect Mary with Carrie as satisfying horror heroines, but maybe Katie's Scream Queen reign will last longer than Sissy Spacek's. If you attend the coronation, just make sure that scepter Isabelle wields doesn't have any sharp edges.


You've done some sick things on film. What's something you absolutely refused to do?
"There's been nudity arguments in the past. I've said that I won't do nudity, which isn't entirely true. I've never come across something that I thought nudity was essential for. Should I find that, I'm not opposed to it at all. But there's definitely been the gratuitous tit shot here and there that I had to politely decline or politely argue about. (laughs) I understand as the young, attractive woman in film, that there's always going to be people seeking out extra salacious things for you to do. I do things in American Mary that are sexy and salacious, but I thought that there was a reason for all of that."

Which movie haunted you the most growing up?
"I remember being trapped in the house with my older cousins. They made me watch, it was like The Blob or something. It was something old and I don't think it was terribly good, but I was like 4. It scared the crap out of me. That's what a whole bunch of older boy cousins will do to you -- scare you to death. Trap you in when you're 4 or 5 and make you watch horrific movies until you're completely traumatized."

Who do you look up to as a Scream Queen?
"Oh, I think I would have to be more knowledgeable of Scream Queens to say. Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween I think is the first real one. So I'd have to go with Jamie Lee -- because I really liked her in True Lies." (laughs)

Favorite horror movie
"The Shining, if I'd have to say my favorite horror movie. My favorite movie of all time is Apocalypse Now, which I think is fairly horrific. If I'm allowed to categorize that as a horror movie, then that would be my favorite one. I would say put that in that category. I don't even care (whether) it belongs there." (laughs)

One role you were dying to get that you didn't get
"I auditioned years ago for The Aviator in a room with just Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese and I knew I blew it the second I walked out. I was like, 'Ohhh, that was terrible.' Oh, yeah. ... I've been doing this for so long, I'm pretty good at like doing my best, auditioning and then letting it go. ... There's always a reason for everything, my mother would say."

An actor in one of your films who really scared the hell out of you
"Al Pacino scared the hell out of me for about 10 minutes and then it turned out he was completely awesome. ... I was trapped in a car with him for nine hours (during the making of Insomnia) ... and I was terrified. And I hadn't met him or spoken to him yet. And I looked at him and said, 'Mr. Pacino, congratulations. I heard you just had twins. What did you name them? And he looked at me and goes, 'Al and Al, after me.' And he turned around. And I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, he hates me. Oh my God, I'm trapped in a car with Scarface. Now he hates me. Oh my God, this is horrible.' And then he burst out laughing and said he was joking and chatted me up and we became good friends for a nine-hour car ride."

Biggest fear
"Spiders and drowning in cold water. (laughs) I don't like being left in the middle of the ocean."

What does movie blood taste like?
"It depends. There's lots of different flavors. You can get regular, mint or cherry. They're all fairly disgusting. I go for mint, usually. There's chocolate as well. They usually give you your choice. If you have to barf blood, like you've eaten your neighbor's dog and have to throw it up (as in Ginger Snaps), they usually give you a choice. Except sometimes then they mix it with raw egg whites and tomatoes. It's just really ... it's disgusting all around. Now I can't eat tomatoes ever again."

Photos courtesy of Katrina Wan PR.

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