It’s so rare to see Mad Scientist stories starring women: that particular breed of ambition and cold calculation, discovery and ultimate downfall, seems to go almost exclusively to men, in spite of the fact that the genre’s great progenitor came from Mary Shelley’s own pen. Women are allowed to be traitorous femme fatales, using their sex appeal and apparent fragility to weave hapless men into traps; rarely they are allowed to be forces of nature, the Annie Wilkeses of the world, raging over helpless captives; or perhaps the insidious, poisonous psychological hold of a Norma Bates. But almost never a scientist, an explorer, someone whose achievements we are urged to marvel at before the constraints of the genre yank things back to the status quo. Even the promising title of Frankenstein’s Daughter cheated us by presenting the man’s grandson instead.
So it was with great joy that I learned of Jen and Sylvia Soska’s attempt to redress some small part of this issue with their sophomore directorial effort, American Mary. Never in my life have I so desperately tried to love a film that, in the end, I can only like.
Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle), a med student in training to become a surgeon. Money is a serious problem, however, and with bill collectors constantly calling Mary is forced to go looking for work (I should note that this plot element is somewhat undermined Mary’s absolutely palatial apartment, unless she is also not paying her rent). She applies at a strip club, only to be in the right place in the right time when the club owner’s side business gets a little too violent with one of its non-paying patrons. Mary stitches him up for a stack of unmarked bills and swears never to go back…only to be contacted the next day by one of the club’s dancers, a very devoted Betty Boop lookalike whose friend has been looking for a surgeon with skills in extreme body modification. Mary wants nothing to do with it, but when an invitation to network with her school’s professors ends in her being drugged and assaulted, she quits school and throws herself into a career as an underground surgeon.
This film has some amazing things going for it, foremost of which is Katherine Isabelle. She imbues a wonderful range into a character that is often required to play a surface level of icy detachment, and she provides both intrigue as a central character study and appeal as the straight man to the seemingly outlandish requests her patients make of her. Seemingly, because this film has no interest in Othering these outsiders (almost all women) who find refuge at Mary’s clinic. The film is unafraid of nudity and also without interest in the male gaze (mostly, hold that thought), instead letting the most triumphant moments of human connection be in these small moments where this “mad doctor” is able to grant a sense of self and ownership of one’s body.
This unique approach to how bodies are shot, displayed, and celebrated (by contrast, the assault as well as the scenes of gore all pointedly keep the characters clothed or otherwise hidden from the camera) is draw enough on its own to keep an eye on these directors, and enough to make the film a worthwhile watch. Certainly I am champing at the bit to see what the Soska sisters make of their next project, a remake of Cronenberg’s Rabid (there might be no better project for these two, given that Cronenberg’s early work is equally high on fascinating body horror and horrifying gender politics).
Speaking of Cronenberg, I see what you did there
But here come the caveats, for this is a film of deeply confused structure. I suspect the story may have begun life as a rape-revenge film a la I Spit on Your Grave, only for the Sisters to realize that that plot is endemic to far too many stories of women “going bad” or otherwise seizing opportunity. The assault is certainly the clearest inciting action in the film, and the fact that the story addresses it quickly and then changes course to follow Mary’s new career as a power fantasy of source is a breath of fresh air that works quite well in the film’s favor.
The trouble is that having done away with the cliché, the story never quite figured out what it wanted to be after that. It dabbles briefly in being a police thriller, with an investigator on the case of the missing rapist; it explores Mary’s rise in the body modification scene; it returns to the club and dallies around with a subplot about the owner lusting after Mary, a fact she has no interest in acknowledging (one could, I suspect, make a good case for Mary as a rare asexual protagonist); furthest in the background, it toys with the implications around the disappearance of Mary’s first patient. All of those are interesting on their own (almost; the bits with the club owner are pretty universally dull or awful, male-gazey, and succeed only in dragging the film down), but forcing them to coexist means that the plot doesn’t move forward with any particular sense of cogent urgency, climaxing in a finale that relies on a plot revelation one could barely count as tertiary.
The ending is a true bafflement, carved from the B-horror rules of structure that demand the highest recompense for having meddled with the status quo, and yet the film up until then was most successful and fascinating when it took delight in twisting the framework of how a monster is defined. Horror has always been a conservative genre, ultimately favoring a return to the sainted status quo. To see the film push so hard at the boundaries of that genre ethos only to snap back in the worst way at the end is an intense disappointment. It’s the hardest comedown of a film that otherwise proves a fascinating, if uneven, experiment (I’m rather fascinated by the fact that apparently the film began with its ending, and that the directorial intent was quite different from how it read to me as a viewer). And a character with as much promise as Mary Mason certainly deserved better.