The golden age of horror: May (2003)

Bill: Lucky McKee’s solo directing debut is an odd little character study that slowly widens its lens over the course of 93 minutes to show the madness surrounding its main character. It’s often laugh out loud funny, sometimes even touching, but eventually ends on a bittersweet note that manages to be both sad and horrifying at the same time.

But one thing is perfectly clear after the first few minutes of this film: Angela Bettis is the biggest reason it succeeds.

After the jump: Why you should never trust a seamstress

Bill: In looking over Lucky McKee’s filmography, I realize that I’ve liked everything he’s done to some degree. I even enjoyed his laconic version of Jack Ketchum’s Red, a slow moving tale of anger and resignation that is so far afield of his normal fare that I had to check the credits twice to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me.

Chris: I’m just rather joyful that with May here, we’ve managed to cover the major movie horror archetypes of the 1930s in this list. Werewolves, ghosts, vampires, and zombies I knew about, and then along comes this fascinating little movie with the Frankenstein riffs.

Bill: I sometimes get the feeling that Lucky’s terrified of women. I mean truly, horrifically scared of them. May, The Woman and even his latest venture, All Cheerleaders Must Die (horrible title, fairly entertaining horror/comedy), they all feature women as either outright villains, or as forces of nature that lash out at anyone who gets too near them. May is the latter. The early scenes of May as a child show us a mother who is not so subtle about her disappointment in having a girl with a lazy eye. As a result, May is afraid to connect with anyone because rejection is, in her mind, assured. It’s stunted her development, and it eventually leads to a grown up May who is more child than adult.

Chris: Kudos to McKee and company for giving us a Frankenstein movie that understands that the monster isn’t nearly as interesting as the psychosis driving its creator. That’s what May feels like to me, and what I enjoyed most about this movie. Too often a Frankenstein-like movie focuses on the creature. I want to know about what drives a person to the lunatic desire to make such a creature in the first place. While I don’t think I enjoyed May as much as you did, Bill, what really works for me is that we’re kind of given Dr. Frankenstein’s point of view here. The movie takes us into May’s head a bit and lets us see things through her crossed eyes. It provokes natural sympathy with her even as the disappointments she feels start making a broken gentle soul pursue darker things.

Bill: Yeah, it’s pretty clear from the outset that May is unhinged; that she’s going to do something bad at some point, or that she’ll have something bad happen to her. I found that guessing game a big draw whenever May encounters another character. Will they hurt this fragile creature? Or will she Ed Gein the hell out of them? It doesn’t help that May’s closest friend is a doll encased in glass. McKee’s a bit heavy handed with the symbolism here. Yes, we get it: May’s just as fragile as a doll in glass. But thankfully he avoids the easy scare route of having the doll talk, move or do anything BUT appear in the film as a doll in a glass case.

But when a group of kids break the doll out of its case…oooh boy. Come to think of it, perhaps I’m actually wrong about the nature of the symbolism. It could very well be that the glass was there to protect everyone else considering what happens next.

Chris: I think that’s a great read on things. The doll in the case represents May’s own idealized self. Since the moment her awful mother gave it to her, that creepy-ass doll has been built up as some sort of thing of beauty and perfection, and while it’s never made explicit, it’s clear that May aspired to be as perfect as her dolly “friend”. With each of the real life relationship setbacks she has, there are new cracks in the glass. When it breaks, it’s that conscience-less, idealized-but-dangerous creature inside May breaking loose.

The pivotal scene where the glass comes apart also illustrates something integral to Lucky McKee’s direction here, and perhaps to his overall style given his oeuvre: this movie goes for it. You could have a scene where the doll case is broken and write it in however you like, really. The way it happens here, though, with blind children and broken glass…it’s excessive, it’s crazy, and perhaps even too much. It can be uncomfortable to watch. I think it’s a conscious choice and it mostly works. There are enough extended, goofy passages in the film that it can become too comfortable if we’re not reminded frequently enough that May is on the verge of going on a rampage. I think that careful juxtaposition between satiric commentary and gory horror is the key to what makes this film tick. The movie is also helped by an interesting cast that seems to fully buy into McKee’s hyper-caffeinated style.

JuOn

Bill: Angela Bettis captures all the intricacy and quirkiness of this character in a tour de force performance that had me in awe of the woman. In less talented hands, May would’ve been a parody. But Bettis makes every move, every glance, every word a nuanced one. When she eventually snaps, it’s a complete transformation of the character that she handles effectively without relying on the standard film trope of just having her character wear different clothes and let her hair down.

I also appreciated the portrayal of the male lead in the film. McKee wisely avoided creating a two dimensional antagonist for May in the character of Adam (Jeremy Sisto). It would have been easy to use Adam as a knowing participant in May’s mental decline, but instead we’re presented with a pretty decent guy who realizes fairly early on that something is really off about May and tries to extricate himself peacefully and quietly. But it’s pretty clear from the outset of the film that May’s on a path that only has one destination.

Chris: There were times when Bettis’ outsized performance left me wondering whether it was too heavy, but in watching it again, I think it suits the material. I do think Anna Faris misses the mark pretty badly in her supporting role, but I agree that Sisto nails it. He’s a tether in the increasingly weird things layered into the film that allows us to divide our empathy between May and her eventual victims.

Bill: Greg Arraki regular James Duval shows up towards the end of the film and almost steals his scene from Bettis by waxing poetically about his love of jujubes before finding a dead cat in the freezer…which then leads to my favorite line in the movie when May asks, “So, are we like best friends now that you’ve seen what’s in my freezer?” May’s talent at making her own clothes finally pays off at the end when she Frankensteins herself the perfect beau out of the body parts she admires most in those she’s encountered throughout the film. But since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and she’s the only one that she believes CAN see her own beauty, she has to give her own eye to the cause in a cringe worthy act of self mutilation. I found that little twist to be the perfect topper to the film.

(May is available to rent or own ditigally through the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)

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