“I like weird. I like weird a lot.” —Jeremy Sisto, May
True to a movie about a disturbed young woman who busies herself with sewing things together out of disparate pieces, Lucky McKee’s May fashions an original whole out of a patchwork of horror influences. There’s Frankenstein, of course, the paradigmatic example of an obsessed loner creating a living thing out of exhumed parts. There’s Carrie, another sympathetic treatment of an intensely awkward, virginal girl whose psychotic episodes can mostly be blamed on her overbearing mother. There’s Psycho, with its relationship between Norman Bates and a tormenter who doesn’t draw breath, which is echoed in the eponymous character’s relationship with “Suzy,” a creepy homemade doll contained in a glassed-in box. Beyond those horror touchstones, McKee plunders shrewdly from other sources, too: From Abel Ferrara’s feminist-themed exploitation classic Ms. 45, he shares some sexual politics and a method of body disposal; from Taxi Driver, he appropriates the famous shot of the camera tracking away from Travis Bickle at a pay phone to his own ends; and from Repulsion, he captures the way extreme isolation and stress can stir up disturbances in a woman’s conscience.
And yet watching May again for the first time since 2002, it didn’t strike me as much of a horror film. Sure it’s intense, bloody, uncompromising, and all those others things associated with extreme horror, and the last 20 minutes or so have a graphic intensity that some have likened to the garden-variety slasher film. But while there’s no denying that May has elements of horror and comments on slasher convention, it’s something far more unclassifiable, and likely to disappoint those who expect their patience to be paid off in scares. Produced at a time when American low-budget genre films had gotten too small for the multiplex and too sick for the arthouse crowd—a time that still persists, though there have been more breakthroughs and crossovers lately—May has a neither-here-nor-there quality that made it the toughest of tough sells in its brief theatrical run, but it’s collected some appreciators since. It’s hard to use a word like “original” to describe a film born of so many sources, but there’s an offbeat singularity to it all the same.
Whatever McKee’s intentions, May stands out as a darkly comic answer to—or at least a much-needed antidote for—the unending stream of indie rom-coms about twentysomethings whose awkwardness and eccentricities are made to seem benign and adorable. On the surface, Angela Bettis’ May could be one those characters: Unglamorous but more than modestly attractive, shy yet mysterious and receptive, and given to dressing in hand-stitched blouses that could, in the indie world, be granted a thrift-store charm. At different points in the movie, the two characters who take a romantic interest in May—Adam (Jeremy Sisto), a mechanic with beautiful hands, and Polly (Anna Faris), a chatty lesbian co-worker—each brush off her warning that she’s a little bit “weird.” “I like weird,” says Adam. “I love weird,” says Polly. But the kind of “weird” they like is indie rom-com weird, not the genuine article. They might envision themselves as appreciators of the outré, but what they’re really looking for is Zooey Deschanel, not a headcase whose best friend is inanimate. At its best, May mines big laughs from the distance between the lovable quirk Adam and Polly expect and the demented creature they actually get.
In an ingenious bit of casting, McKee turned to Bettis, the star of the 2002 TV miniseries version of Carrie, to play May with a Carrie-like mix of neediness and longing that humanizes her even after she goes off the deep end. Given her off-hours hobby of cutting things and putting them back together, May has a near-perfect job as a surgical nurse at an animal hospital, where her enthusiasm for the scalpel isn’t that conspicuous. Flashbacks inform us that May wore a patch over her lazy eye as a little girl, and was permanently ostracized; from that point on in her warped upbringing, mommy did her best Piper Laurie impression and “Suzy” was her lone confidante. As an adult, May does not hide her creepy nature terribly well—she’s at best shy, but more often she stalks and skulks around, and will share her unsettling enthusiasms to anyone who takes an interest. Polly’s nonstop chattering acts as an effective, if inadvertent, defense against the depth of May’s weirdness, and Adam, a would-be horror filmmaker, is enough of a narcissist to be flattered by May’s obsession with his hands and seems open to the possibility that someone appreciates his sick taste. Still, whenever May opens up, as she does in this story about a dog patched up with cat sutures, it makes him queasy:
Remove the grislier elements of May, and it’s affecting in much the same way Carrie is affecting before prom night comes along. Granted, Carrie plays a different kind of wallflower: As a teenager, she’s still trying hard to fit in, and her inadequacy in doing so makes her painfully shy, right up to the point where the pig’s blood drops and she has her revenge. May is like Carrie if she’d survived adolescence a little more comfortable with (or maybe just resigned to) being an outsider and more capable of acting on her romantic impulses, even if that means caressing her own face with Adam’s hand while he’s nodded off in a coffee shop. Once Adam finally makes the realization that he doesn’t like this kind of “weird,” May lacks the social graces to read the signals; she just continues her dogged pursuit through dozens of unanswered messages, standoff-ish public exchanges, and the taunts of Adam’s new girlfriend. At one point, she simply waits outside his front door. For two hours.
The liveliest moments in May get dark (and sometimes silly) laughs out of the utter obliviousness of its characters—not just May herself, but the two romantic interests that come into her life. Faris again confirms her status as one of her generation’s most gifted screen comediennes—with her generation’s worst agent, unfortunately—by making Polly a daffy, ditzy, kinky delight. (“You’re funny,” she says with a chipper tone after May does something creepy. “Do you want to watch me file?”) In Adam’s case, he fancies himself the type of guy who likes dark, mysterious women like May, who in turn can appreciate the horror and gothic paraphernalia that festoons his apartment wall. She’s also the perfect audience—too perfect—for his dumb, pretentious, bloody cannibalistic student short, which she interprets as an exciting and mostly plausible fantasy:
When May finally gets to the Frankenstein part, when her relationships with everyone (including Suzy) have collapsed and she resolves to a sew herself a new best friend, the film becomes a more ordinary exercise in the macabre, more inevitable than inspired. Though McKee nearly redeems the ending with a surprisingly tender final shot, he leaves himself with nowhere to go but the place where all the human doll parts are finally brought together. Still, it’s a testament to how effective the film is that McKee aligns us closely with May to the grisly end, because she’s really just acting on her own twisted nature, still looking for that elusive personal connection that will relieve a lifetime of loneliness. In a more cozily eccentric indie universe, she would be Zooey Deschanel; in this one, she’s genuinely disturbed.
July 28: Zodiac
August 18: Inside (L’Interieur)
September 8: Shaun Of The Dead