“Watcha reading about?”
“No. Just for fun”
May was a film that was a teenage favourite of mine. As a strange kid I could relate to May’s social awkwardness. Plus I used to show it to goth girls to try to impress them.
I first encountered the film in a 2003 article about the post 9/11 renaissance of the horror film. Coming after what is (somewhat erroneously) regarded as a fallow period in the 90s, the genre’s new blood was epitomised by the loose collections of filmmakers dubbed “The Splat Pack” (Neil Marshall, Alexandre Aja, Rob Zombie, Eli Roth etc).
May has now been released in a gorgeous blu ray set by Second Sight films. It is about time this film had a blu ray release at all! What is obvious 20 years later is that May defies being categorised into this horror revival. When you attempt to categorise a loose collection of filmmakers working in the same genre as some kind of movement, you always end up risking flattening differences. Whilst the film is disturbing and has its share of violence, May is its own singular beast, unlike the self conscious homages to 70s and 80s films of the era.
The film opens in media res with the titular May Dove Canady (Angela Bettis who had recently played Carrie in a TV movie) clutching her bleeding eye socket. The film then shows us a dreamlike cascade of tumbling doll parts. We learn that May was the daughter of an overbearing doll maker. Isolated because of her lazy eye which forced her to wear an eyepatch, May’s mother tells her “If you can’t find a friend, make one”. To this end, her mother presents her with the Suzie doll, a porcelain doll which has to be kept in its glass case.
As an adult May works at an animal hospital and sews. May is still socially awkward, brilliantly evoked by Bettis’ amazing performance. She is to quote Kier-la Janisse’s genre tome House of Psychotic Women– “equal parts Carrie White and Travis Bickle”. May is an archetypal “femcel” (the term incel ironically deriving from an “involuntarily celibate” disabled woman).
She is infatuated with a local boy Adam, played by Jeremy Sisto (Wrong Turn, Thirteen). She is particularly obsessed with his hands. She has a short relationship with Adam who tells her he likes weird. This is shown by his short film about a cannibal couple, or the shrine to Argento’s Opera in his room. However when she draws blood biting him during sex (imitating his short film) his socially acceptable transgression reaches its limit. She finds a new relationship with lesbian co-worker Polly (comedy superstar Anna Faris), who does not seem likely to be phased by May’s weirdness. However May misunderstands their relationship and is upset when she finds Polly having sex with another woman. As May’s attempts at human interaction force her into a continuing mental decline, cracks grow in Suzies’ case, the sound tormenting May. It is an obvious metaphor for May’s similarly fracturing psyche.
May is volunteering at a visually impaired children’s daycare at the same time. After her other attempts at friendship have failed, she brings in the Suzie doll and says she is her “only friend”. In a horrifying bravura sequence the children attempt to touch Suzie and the case falls to the ground. The case shatters and the children dive to the floor , attempting to touch May’s “friend”. The bloody sequence is made more unnerving by the creepy children’s song that plays.
At her lowest ebb May takes in a punk bro named Blank (James Duval, aka Frank the rabbit in Donnie Darko). He is unnerved when he finds the remains of May’s cat whom she accidentally killed in the fridge. May asks him if they are friends now he has seen what’s in her fridge! Disgusted, he responds no. May proceeds to stab Blank in the head. May decides after this initial brush with bloodlust that since finding friends has failed, she will now make one, deciding to murder people and collect their body parts.
It is in this period that the film lurches from a kind of proto mumblecore indie film, replete with grungye alt rock needledrops (including The Breeders) to a horror film. The film becomes a postmodern prometheus, as alluded to by Blank’s Frankenstein tattoo. The idea of collecting body parts is similar to the Spanish American slasher Pieces.
The film is fantastic. The first two acts are surprisingly funny, with great offbeat dialogue (“When I left for vacation my dog had four legs, okay? Then I came back – now he only has three!”). The performances are amazing. Angela Bettis became a minor “scream queen” off the back of the film, and it’s easy to see why. Her performance is so authentically awkward that we understand why others are unnerved by May, but our sympathies are always with her. Through her one friend in Suzie, May has learnt that friendship is something that can only be experienced through a barrier. For May, connection with others has only come through viewing.
The performances are fantastic across the board. In particular this is Anna Faris like most people have not seen her!
The debutante Lucky McKee handles cinematography and tone masterfully. The film evokes a brilliantly dream-like atmosphere and uses subliminal cuts to great effect in later moments. McKee shows his appreciation for Argento in several references.
The music is great, mostly composed of the aforementioned needle drops and the score by Jammes Luckett. Jammes interview on the desk is well worth a watch by the way!
Unfortunately McKee’s career has had highs and lows, from highpoints like the controversial and brilliant The Woman, to investor interference and having films taken out of his hands. McKee never ascended to the level of mainstream exposure that the aforementioned “Splat pack” did, and maybe it’s because his sensibilities are too personal and idiosyncratic to mesh with the commercial studio system. Lucky’s work shows a feminine side, a lack of the leering male gaze that existed in the horror of the time. He never directed a remake or reboot, or a big studio adaptation, nor did he have a box office success comparable to those filmmakers I invoked (or indeed one of May’s editors – Rian Johnson!).
However whilst I have a huge amount of nostalgia for those horror films of the period – being that it is the period I decided horror was for me – on rewatch I found May holds up, in a way those films often don’t. May reminds me what it was like to feel like an outsider at that time (for what it’s worth I still do to a degree) and how this film became its own weird discovery for me and my few friends.