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MAY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Angela Bettis, Jeremy Sisto, James Duval, Merle Kennedy, Anna Faris
Director:  Lucky McKee
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Lions Gate Films
Features:  Two Commentaries, Trailer
Length:  93 Minutes
Release Date:  July 15, 2003

"I told you to FACE THE G-D DAMN WALL!!!"

Film ****

Just when you think you’ve seen it all as a horror fan, a film comes along that proves you wrong.  May is, quite simply, the most thoroughly satisfying and effective horror movie I’ve seen in at least 10 years.

In fact, there’s been only one other film I’ve seen in that span that I’ve embraced as a new classic of the genre.  But while The Blair Witch Project was anti-style, May uses subtle stylings to make you think.  Imagine that…a horror film that engages your brain!

It’s not that there’s nothing in the picture that hasn’t been seen before.  You can pick out a few obvious bits of homage here and there, but that’s not the point.  What makes May original is that it takes the aspects of horror that might normally create comfort zones for the audience and makes them VERY uncomfortable.  It’s also one of the best acted and directed of its kind in recent memory.

The weight of the picture is on Angela Bettis’ shoulders as the title character.  May is a challenging, invocative creation of psychological tics and emotional trauma, and Ms. Bettis channels pathos, fear, sweetness and repulsion, sometimes simultaneously.  Each stroke had to be perfect, or the movie could have collapsed into just another run of the mill slasher flick.  It wouldn’t have been unnerving, and it wouldn’t have been memorable.

May, as a child, suffered from a lazy eye and an obsessive mother who promised that some day she’d be perfect.  Not having many friends growing up, her mother advised that she could ‘make’ one, and presents her with a doll she herself had made years ago.  But the doll is too precious to the mother; May is forbidden from even removing her from her glass case to play with or cuddle.

As a young woman, May loves to sew and works as a veterinarian’s assistant, where she catches the eye of Polly (Faris), a sex-for-kicks gal who warms to May in overt ways.  “You have a beautiful neck,” is May’s initial observation.  But May, who obviously has never had a relationship, soon falls for Adam (Sisto), a body shop mechanic.  May notices his hands first.

After an initial encounter, where Adam presents the non-smoking May with a pack of cigarettes that she soon treasures like a rose, they strike up a friendship/relationship.  Adam, who loves Dario Argento horror movies and has a bit of a macabre set-up in his apartment, thinks he’s found a kindred spirit in the awkward and sometimes off-putting May.  But he has no idea what he’s getting himself into, until…

You know, that’s as far as I want to go.  Although I must say the movie engrosses you from frame one, and writer/director Lucky McKee uses his words, camerawork and editing to give you not-so-subtle hints about what’s too unfold.  That’s part of the unique genius of the structure of the movie.  Most horror flicks like to startle you quickly and use only the most conventional methods of building suspense, assuming they bother at all.  McKee plants seeds in your brain early on that you can’t shake loose as you watch.  There’s dark humor, sadness, and romance all at play in the movie.  But you can’t take it in without also wondering if what you think is going to happen will actually happen.

In other words, May is the rare horror picture that actually earns moment by moment everything that happens at the end.  There is actually a deep rooted method to the madness; by the finale, the audience hasn’t been sucker-punched.  Shocked, yes, but as horrible and as outrageous as the events are, they seem to have been arrived at through systematic logic and psychological necessity.  We recoil while never forgetting that for once, we’re not watching just some psycho with a few wires fused, but a tragic, unbalanced central figure driven by an actual, clearly expressed need.

Did I mention Angela Bettis?  I sure did, but a good cast is worth repeating.  Her performance as May is nothing short of completely astounding as she walks a razor thin line in a role that could have imploded into parody in the hands of a less talented actress.  Her conviction earns our investment, and our investment doesn’t go unrewarded…just a different kind of reward awaits. 

The script mixes varying moments with skill and courage.  There are a few chuckles.  There are moments that are truly heartbreaking.  There are moments that will rock you back in your seat.  And through it all is a plausible if unsettling character-driven approach to horror that most filmmakers grope blindly for but never find.

I consider May not only an instant classic, but already an all-time great in the genre.  It will be the first movie I pop into my DVD player this Halloween.  If you do the same, I can promise you won’t be sorry.

Video ****

Top notch all the way!  Lions Gate delivers a superb anamorphic transfer here that renders tremendous detail, strong beautiful coloring, and sharpness without artifact.  You’ll definitely appreciate the level of detail in May’s room…there are a lot of good things going on in that setting.  Each color is distinct and natural looking, and the palate is wide.  Even darkly lit scenes are brought about with clarity and integrity, without undue grain or haziness spoiling the visuals.  Highest marks.

Audio ***1/2

This is a dynamic 5.1 soundtrack that delivers...and as we all know, sound is key in horror.  From the terrific songs and music to just the circular sounds of May's madness, this is an engrossing listen.  Particularly good is the sound of glass coming apart in a crucial scene. 

Features **1/2

The disc features an international trailer (definitely for restricted audiences) and two commentary tracks.  The first features Lucky McKee, Angela Bettis, two supporting actors, his DP and editor.  The second features McKee with his composer, production assistant and others, including the Craft service guy (?).  I enjoyed the first one more simply because it was a more relaxed and fun listen, but I would have loved to have heard more from Bettis, since her performance is what elevated the film from good to great.

Summary:

May is the best and most satisfying horror movie in quite some time.  Well acted and directed, scripted with urgency and pathos, and unflinching when it goes for the jugular, this is one you won’t be able to look away from once it starts.  You may be looking through winced eyes, but you’ll be looking.  Highest recommendation.