There was a time us old folk remember when you would rent a messed up little indie horror movie based solely on the cover and description. No Twitter hyperbole or festival raving aside from what was written on the box (which was often not to be believed). Not even a Rotten Tomatoes score to check! Just the cover art and you. And sometimes, you’d discover a hidden gem.
Lucky McKee’s May (2002) was one of those movies for a lot of people. A weird little flick that found its fanbase on home video. The eventual cult classic didn’t quite pre-date the internet but did come before Netflix and Tubi streaming (May is currently available on Tubi, ironically). I watched it again for the first time in years and was taken back at how unique May really is.
If embarrassing American Idol auditions were a horror subgenre (they probably should be), May would be a perfect pairing. The imagery may suggest physical horror and that remains true but May is far more an exercise in social horror. Awkward, awkward social horror. May (Angela Bettis) grows up with a physical defect and an emotionally demeaning mom. In just a few short scenes we’re quickly filled in on the fact that this poor girl’s wiring is totally FUBAR. She’s given a doll for her birthday by her mom who says (in an obvious moment of foreshadowing) “if you can’t find a friend, make one.” But she’s not even allowed to take it out of its glass casing.
Fast forward to May as an adult trying to weave her way through a lonely life as an Animal Hospital worker desperately trying to find any kind of companionship. As she‘s predictably used and hurt by the people around her, her sweet and awkward exterior starts to crack. So does the glass case around her doll. Don’t worry, it’s a metaphor. The doll doesn’t go all Puppet Master on us. This is more of an American Psycho type tale.
All this sounds pretty heavy but I’ve neglected to mention how weirdly hilarious and cool this movie is. Well, not cool in the traditional sense. Let’s put it this way: If I Know What You Did Last Summer was about the cool kids in a small town? May is about the kids who were smoking pot under the bleachers while those kids went to college in the sequel. Everyone’s a little lost and a little fucked up. Especially May herself. And you know what? We like weird.
May meets and immediately obsesses over Adam (Jeremy Sisto), which is probably the worst thing that could happen to her. He’s tall, handsome and charming but he also has a penchant for dark and twisted things. You get the sense that he sees her deeply seeded social issues as sort of a kitschy novelty that will work as some sort of accessory to his eccentric and edgy persona. Completely disregarding her mental well being in the process. Plus, he wants to sleep with her. Well written and well acted, Adam’s character feels realistic and complex enough that you’re never quite sure what he’s thinking. May’s co-worker Polly (Anna Farris), meanwhile, starts the film obsessed with May as a sexual conquest. May doesn’t really care about that but obliges anyway, merely looking for some kind of human connection. Any kind of human connection. Sadly, her honest intentions for love and friendship are repeatedly used and discarded by others.
Did I mention that this movie is funny? May brings a whole new definition to the words horror-comedy. It makes you laugh in an unnatural horrific way because of the extreme awkwardness of the title character in social interactions. Her attempting to talk to a boy will have you crawling up your walls screaming “NO!”, laughing and hiding your face in shame when what she says next is somehow even weirder than you thought it’d be. Whether it’s May stalking Adam to a coffee shop and rubbing her face on his hands when he falls asleep or the way she stares at a stranger from a bus bench looking like Gollum trying to read a drive thru menu with a tiny font; the second hand embarrassment is far deeper a cut than any knife could ever make.
And Angela Bettis plays it all beautifully, cementing herself as a truly unique horror icon.
Eventually, in the goddamn Super Bowl of awkwardness, we’re forced to watch May’s first attempt at sex (after she watches and is influenced by Adam’s zombie porn horror short). It ends with Adam saying he likes weird but “Not that weird” and running for the front door. Throw in a hilarious and totally gonzo scene starring a random punker played by Donnie Darko’s James Duval asking May if she “has any ice cubes I can rub on my nipples” before discovering a dead cat in her freezer? You’ve got the recipe for May’s social horror story to end and for the physical revenge horror to begin. Lest I forget the mixing of both in a scene featuring a classroom of blind children crawling around aimlessly on their hands and knees on a floor full of broken glass. It’s one of the most deranged things I’ve ever seen on film.
Part of the reason May feels like such a rare find is because it unabashedly moves to the beat of its own out-of-tune drum. It’s smart and eccentric but far more authentic than pretentious. It’s sort of a working class, strip mall version of an American Beauty or Donnie Darko. Both movies felt like personal discoveries despite their respective hype because of how dark and deeply personal their characters were carved, and May had all of that in spades. It’s a story about loneliness, how parents can screw up their kids, how we can screw up each other, and how sometimes you shouldn’t screw with the wrong person.
Eventually, May will finally snap and decide to make her own friend out of her favorite dismembered body parts of those around her. The friend comes to life (after the finishing touch of May’s own eyeball) and reaches an arm around her to comfort her. Initially I thought “Of course it’s all in her head” and then “but what if it isn’t?” before deciding that she needed a person to love her so badly that her brain flat out broke and gave her one. Finally, I thought about how hilarious it was when her own eyeball she’d just put on its face rolled off and landed awkwardly on her chin. It’s these many different tones that come together to form the genius of May as a whole. It’s funny. It’s horrifying. It’s sweet and it’s sad. It’s got all the best parts rolled into one.