Shudder UK film review: May (2003)
Anton Bitel | On 23, Dec 2016
Director: Lucky McKee
Cast: Angela Bettis, Jeremy Sisto, Anna Farris, James Duval
Watch May online in the UK: Shudder
Every other weekend, our resident horror obsessive Anton Bitel delves into Shudder’s selection of horrors to handpick a Friday night fright.
“What’s wrong with my eye, mama?”, asks young May (Chandler Riley Hecht) in the opening line of the film that shares her name. “Doctor says it’s lazy eye,” replies her mother (Merle Kennedy, “but we’re going to make you look perfect.”
Any quest for perfection is both quixotic, and filled with disappointment and disaster. We already know – sort of – where May’s particular quest is leading, because, before this conversation from her childhood, the film opens with a scene of the adult May (Angela Bettis) screaming and clutching her hand over the bloody part of her face where her eye should be. To reach this endpoint, however, May will take us step by step through its heroine’s myopic descent, from acceptable eccentricity into out-and-out madness.
Where May’s mother wants her daughter to fit in more by conforming to notions of bodily perfection, the irony is that the eyepatch May must wear to correct her condition is precisely what alienates her from her young peers. “If you can’t find a friend, make one,” suggests May’s mother, gifting her daughter her own childhood doll – that great symbol of idealised beauty – while insisting that it never be removed from its glass display case or touched by May.
As an adult, and still surrounded by dolls, May remains not just virginal and naïve but also infantilised. Shy, awkward and deprived of human contact, she longs for “a real friend – someone I can hold”, but deters others with her own oddity, even as she finds herself disappointed with their superficial flaws (“so many pretty parts and no pretty wholes”). The professional veterinarian/amateur seamstress attempts her first relationships with mechanic Adam (Jeremy Sisto) and receptionist Polly (Anna Farris), but when these turn sour, failing to conform fully to her skewed romantic ideals, she comes up with a plan to make her own model companion.
Lucky (The Woman) McKee’s follow-up to his 2001 feature debut, All Cheerleaders Must Die (which he remade in 2013), May is – like the clothes its protagonist sews and the partner whom she eventually fashions – a patchwork of different source materials. “I’m a psycho,” Adam tells May, as he ‘stabs’ her with the fake knife he keeps in his shrine to Dario Argento. Sure enough, the mother issues from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the giallo-esque slashings of Argento have left their mark on May, as has William Lustig’s Maniac (on whose title May appears to be playing, and whose living doll motifs it pilfers). Even more pronounced is the influence of Frankenstein (1931) – whose monster appears as a character’s tattoo expressly admired by May – and of Juan Piquer Simón’s jigsaw schlocker, Pieces (1982). Yet McKee fully understands what May herself eventually comes to realise: that to breathe life into borrowed parts, you need to put in a bit of yourself.
Adam is an amateur filmmaker (and horror fan) who claims to “like weird”, but who works out, to his cost, that May has more weird than he can handle, and that she is only too happy to import into her real life the fantasy elements from a horror romance that he has made and shown her. In seeking to create her perfect mate, May, in fact, produces something horrific and monstrously piecemeal, in reflection of her own inner conflicts – and while her rapacious attacks on those whom she perceives as having wronged her may, in part, be motivated by vengeance, in the end May delivers a different kind of ‘eye for an eye’. In the meantime, McKee has crafted a quirky tragicomedy where the body horror is offset by a high degree of camp, and the broadly drawn characterisation is anchored in one woman’s psychotic legacy. By the end, love will find its way, even if all the awful stitching shows in May’s pansexual tapestry of desire.
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