When reviewing a genre movie, it’s important to know where the reviewer is coming from. Reviews of “May” in the horror community tend towards “nearly perfect”, “Grade A”, “one of the best of 2003", etc. while the movie’s rating on Metacritic.com, which aggregates dozens of reviews from mainstream sources, is a mere 58% (“mixed or average”)1. Horror fans saw Lucky McKee’s name in the lineup for Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series and cheered; mainstream-oriented, occasional horror watchers saw his name and said “who?” We just don't speak the same language. I’m betting McKee will go on to make another half-dozen amazing horror movies before moving on to something a little more mainstream – and getting rave reviews all across the board for that, just like David Cronenberg, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson before him.
In the meantime, if you are one of those unfortunate souls who don’t really care for horror except for slumming with a commercial fright flick once in a while or a brief detour into Hannibal Lecter’s territory, I would advise giving “May” a miss. You won’t like it. It will frustrate you by not being bloody enough for most of the movie and far too bloody for about ten minutes. You will be annoyed that an actress as “endearing” as Angela Bettis is wasting her time in splatter cinema, and you’ll really wish you had rented something deep like “Sideways”. You may now skip to the end of the review and the first interesting softlink.
But if you are anything like a real fan of horror, you owe it to yourself to catch this unique vision of madness. Lucky McKee’s cinematic career is just beginning, and although his inexperience does show occasionally (he has a lot of fun pointing out continuity errors and “really stupid scenes” in the DVD commentary), he already has an amazing sense of character and knows just how to cross the line between nervous laughter and full-blown horror without missing a step. His writing in “May” goes back and forth over that line again and again, helped out by a fantastic acting job from Angela Bettis, who has all the makings of a legendary scream queen.
One of the things that really made “May” work for me, and probably contributed to its mainstream critical panning, is that it doesn’t dive into the easily categorized splatter zone until the time is right. It spends most of its time developing May’s character instead, and does this so well it reminds me of Guillermo Del Toro’s work in “Cronos” and “Devil’s Backbone”. May is a very weird and deeply misunderstood woman, and Bettis plays her with touching vulnerability. She has a scene early in the movie where she catches the object of her obsession sleeping with one hand in the air, and she can’t help going over to him to rub her cheek against that perfect hand. It’s creepy and, yes, it is totally implausible, but Bettis makes it work wonderfully.
Things eventually do start getting weirder after that, but it’s never quite clear how much of the weirdness is real and how much is May’s interpretation of things. The insanely frightening doll that is May’s only constant friend never does what a lesser writer/director would make it do, and in fact there isn’t a single inarguable sign of anything supernatural going on in the movie – only May, falling farther and farther off her hinges and simultaneously getting more confident and self-assured until she arrives at her own complete damnation while getting exactly what she wants.
That, my friends, is horror.
I’m giving “May” 5 Hands of Glory, and naming Lucky McKee and Angela Bettis two of the people you most want to be keeping a severed eyeball on in the horror world.
1The notable exception is Roger Ebert, who generally has a pretty good feel for horror and was the only critic listed on Metacritic.com to give “May” a perfect score. Roger, you rock!