May – A Review
May (2002) is a horror film unlike many horror films I’ve seen. Its effectiveness doesn’t come from jump scares, psychos behind masks, or ghosts and monsters hiding in the shadows. It isn’t about blood and gore, although there’s plenty of it. The success of the film is purely psychological. We watch with uneasy anticipation as the lead character slowly, but surely, descends in to madness, like a twisted coil on the verge of snapping. The film, like its lead character, is sweet, charming, odd, tragic, horrific, and moving, all at the same time.
The title character of the film, played by Angela Bettis, is a lonely person. As a kid, she wore a patch to cover her crooked eye. As a result, she became ostracized by her classmates, and treated more like a project to be improved on than an actual daughter by her parents. The only real friend May has is a toy doll named Susie, given to her by her mother. Susie is as freaky as you could imagine a freaky toy doll to be: with its long black hair and wide, hollow eyes, encased in a glass box that May is told she could never, ever open. To assume that the doll is a metaphor for May herself goes without saying.
Not having many friends (correction, NO friends), May grows up to be very observant of other people. She sees people made up of perfect parts: feet, arms, thighs, and so on, but never as a perfect whole. That is, until she meets Adam Stubbs (Jeremy Sisto), an amateur horror film director. To May, everything about Adam is perfect, especially his hands. In an unnerving scene, we see May sneak up to a sleeping Adam, and rub her face in his perfect hands. This is telling of May as a character, we see her infatuation with other people, but her lack of social skills and odd interest in the grotesque almost ruins any chance she has in establishing a meaningful bond with another person.
May and Adam develop a relationship, but right from the start Adam can see the warning signs she exudes. During their first conversation, May describes in detail a gruesome experience she had working with animals at a veterinary clinic. Adam is immediately turned off by the passive and almost humorous attitude she has in describing such a terrible event. When Adam shows May a short horror film he directed, in which a loving couple ends up eating each others body parts, May responds not with shock, but by explaining to Adam that a person would not be able to take a person’s finger off with just one bite, not exactly the kind of response Adam was expecting. He immediately attempts to remove himself from her, a rejection that sparks a chain of events leading to May’s eventual descent.
The second major rejection comes from Polly (Anna Faris), May’s coworker at the clinic. Polly is a lesbian, but dimwitted, surprising that she would be qualified to work in a medical environment. At first, Polly is attracted to the weird and unique nature of May. In a scene where May cuts Polly’s finger with a scalpel, she becomes captivated instead of turned off by the pain. Polly, with her sexual confidence raises the energy between them, a situation May is not accustomed to. The two eventually have a bond that they both enjoy, but Polly does not see it the way May does. Where May sees this as a chance to develop a real foundation with a person, Polly sees it only as a fling, and when May finds Polly with another woman, the rejection only compounds to the stress that May has in her life, all leading to a Halloween none of them will ever forget.
The major accomplishment of the film is that it allows us to look inside the mind of the monster. So often in horror movies do we see the killers and ghouls as one-dimensional beings, where their only motivation is to simply be the monster. In this film, writer-director Lucky McKee opens his main character, flaws and all, for us to see. Although she does terrible and horrific things, May’s motivation is all too clear. She is a lonely person; she wants to be around other people. She desires not so much a lover, but simply a friend. The fact that she spent her entire life with the only companion being her doll, we find ourselves surprised at the amount of sympathy we have for her. This, in turn, affects us even more when the blood and guts begin to spill, because we know the reasoning for the monster’s actions, and the tragedy of knowing how far she has fallen.
Technically, the film is the reverse of many modern horror films. The kills are not loud and splashy like a slasher flick, but rather close and intimate. Instead of big knives and cartoony-like action, the killer uses scalpels, gets close to their victims, and nails them when they least expect it. Don’t look for people running around, screaming at the top of their lungs trying to get away, this isn’t that kind of movie. In fact, the only person who does scream is May herself. The intimacy and quietness of the horror is startling, there is a moment where a character gets shards of glass caught in their eye, and as result we feel the strong effect, because the film successfully has us imagine what it would be like to be in that character’s position.
Angela Bettis is quite the unique actress. She is small and quaint; her soft tone voice and eccentric facial features are that which would make it easy for one to become fascinated by, as many of the other characters of the film do. But at the same time, she has the ability to portray the slow madness revolving around her. At one point, we smile at how cute she is when she lands a date with a boy, then we grow concerned by the effects rejection has had, and then eventually horrified at her inevitable psychological break. This is an underrated performance that should be commended by others, but I’m afraid it won’t be. Looking up her profile on IMDB.com, I find that she has also been in Girl, Interrupted (1999) with Winona Ryder, and a TV version of Carrie (2002). I’m not surprised by her role in Carrie, which is also a story of a lonely girl driven to the breaking point. It takes a rare talent for an actress to play a character we both sympathize with and are scared by, and I hope to see Bettis again in the future.
May is not only an effective horror film, but also a quiet and unsettling character study. McKee has directed a film that allows the viewer to see the complete arc of its lead, and because of that attention the film becomes all the more sad and tragic. This is not a film for everyone, infact many people may be turned off by the intimacy of its gore. There’s a sequence in the film involving children that hints of exploitation, but the film understands this, and mercifully does not focus on it for very long. In the end, the highlight of the film is its lead character, and her desire to have that “perfect” friend. In ending, I call to attention the final shot of the film. I’m not going to describe what it is, but it deals with the closure that May has with her own inner demons. Where many horror films finish with a cliché, this one ends with an image that is not just disturbing, but curiously moving and thought provoking. Sure, you could call it “weird,” but sometimes, “weird” can be a good thing.