I Need More Parts:
“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out…”
—-Matthew 5: 29
Polly (talking about her pet cat): ‘My landlady’s a real bitch. I have to get rid of her.’
May: ‘The landlady?’
Polly: ‘No, dummy; the cat.’
In the years since May was first released, writer-director Lucky McKee’s debut film has crossed that invisible line and become a cult horror film classic. And rightly so. Derided by some as tasteless and repulsive, it is in fact a master class in how to make a film that could have just been content with being quirky into something deeper and more affecting.
In the first minute alone we know that we are in good hands: there is a very brief animated sewing sequence that includes a single drop of blood and which gives us the name of the filmmaker and the title of his movie; this is followed by a shot of a screaming girl who appears to have had her eye gouged out; and that in turn goes into a slow-motion sight of dismembered doll parts that have been thrown into the air. When looked at in retrospect it is a remarkably concise summing up of what we are going to learn in the next hour-and-a-half.
We then see May as a little girl. She is already something of a social outcast, ostensibly due to a lazy right eye. Really, however, it is more down to her mother, a Martha Stewart-type who seems a little too bent on perfection. She not only puts a bloody great black patch over the offending eye but instructs the little girl to keep her long hair over it. “Do you want to make friends?” she says. “Then keep it covered!” If her classmates hadn’t noticed her wandering eye before, they sure as hell couldn’t miss this demonstration.
Later, as we watch May celebrate her birthday with no one but her parents, the mother tells her: “If you cannot find a friend, make one.” She then gives her a sad-looking doll called Suzie, which she forbids May to ever remove from the box as it is special—it is the first doll that her mother ever made. A doll stuck in a box forever, instead of being played with. No wonder it looked sad. It reminds me of those ‘collector’ guys who won’t remove anything from the package because it will decrease the value. Missing the point of having toys, I’ve always thought. I love playing with my Universal Monsters toys. They wouldn’t like it if I had left them in their boxes at all…eh, I mean I know someone who does that. Moving swiftly on:
We then move to the grown-up May (Angela Bettis) who, despite her social awkwardness, is getting through life. She still has that damned doll and talks away to it as if it is her best mate, but she is working as an assistant to a veterinarian (who has an unfortunate habit of leaving implements inside of animals after they’ve been sown up). She’s also being hit on with some regularity by her lesbian co-worker, Polly (Anna Farris). May is a bit of an innocent and doesn’t really get what no one else could miss. When Polly invites her around to hang out and eat some melon with her, I had my own innocent suspicions as to what kind of melon she was on about eating; but by the time she was saying “I’m just sitting here in my nightie wondering how my little puss-puss was”, I doubt that anyone except May would be in any doubt.
Polly is a really great character, and played by Farris from the Scary Movie comedies brings a lot of light relief to the film. When she catches May pricking her finger with a scalpel, she almost goes into fascinated orgasms; and when May does the same to her she yelps:
“You crazy bitch, why did you do that? [Coyly…] Actually, I kinda liked it. Do me again.”
There’s no answer to that.
May, however, has fallen for someone else. Or rather she has fallen for the hands of a student mechanic who works nearby called Adam (Jeremy Stubbs). The pair in fact begin a tentative affair which actually triggers May’s descent into complete madness. When Adam shows her an amateur film that he has made and which involves a young couple and a spot of cannibalism, May takes this a bit literally and bites a chunk out of his lip, which has the effect of cooling his ardour and sending him packing. Mind you, he should have listened to the alarm bells earlier when he asked her what he thought of his short piece of surrealism. “It was sweet”, says May. “I don’t think that she could have gotten his whole finger in one bite, though. That bit was kind of far-fetched.”
As May, never entirely sane to begin with, begins to withdraw into her own fantasy, she ‘realises ‘that only parts of people are perfect. That the whole has to be made to match up. You can see where this is going, can’t you? Mummy would have been proud. May takes her advice.
“I’ve successfully escaped that lunatic…”
The film makes very explicit references to Frankenstein and Carrie, which are too obvious to miss. One of her would-be suitors has a tattoo of Karloff in make-up on his arm; and there is a wonderful shot of May walking towards the camera on Halloween with a gore-drenched red dress that is pure Prom Night Carrie. (Interestingly, the actress played Carrie White in the fine TV remake that same year.)
Watching it a second time, however, I was struck by its (unintentional?) resemblance to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Alone in her room, talking to herself and her doll, May more and more resembles de Niro’s Travis Bickle, psyching himself up for the final massacre. Although, to be fair, May leaves old Travis in the halfpenny place.
This film belongs to Angela Bettis. It is an extraordinary performance that seems to bypass acting. She inhabits the body of this frail-looking, twitchy, vulnerable, fragile girl who is increasingly on the edge and capable of extreme savagery. Yet we really want this young woman to find happiness, whilst knowing that she won’t. And she captures the increasing derangement, the fragmentation of a personality perfectly. (Bettis collected several awards including a Fangoria Chainsaw one.) And McKee emphasises this brilliantly by keeping the motif of fragmentation physically visible in subtle (and not so subtle) images throughout.
But it is really May’s embrace of the literal that is her undoing, possibly dating back to that innocuous remark by her mother.
A fine film. Watch it with a strong stomach, however.
Adam: “Does this stuff freak you out?”
May: “Nothing freaks me out.”
That’s my May.
On top of everything else, May comes with a terrific original score by Jaye Barnes Luckett and some great additional songs throughout. Here’s ‘Do You Love Me Now?’ From The Breeders.