Written and Directed by Lucky McKee
A Lion’s Gate Entertainment Picture
Starring: Angela Bettis (May Canady); Jeremy Sisto (Adam Stubbs); Anna Faris (Polly); James Duval (Blank); Nichole Hiltz (Ambrosia); Merle Kennedy (Mama Canady); Rachel David (Petey); Nora Zehetner (Hoop)
Welcome to the miserable existence of May Canady (Angela Bettis), a lonely girl whose neurosis, stemming from childhood, drives her into seclusion. May has a lot of things going for her: she’s pretty, she’s creative with a sewing machine (she makes her own clothes) and her surface weirdness is rather fetching. Like a lot of horror’s loners (Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960), Bruce Davidson in Willard (1971)), she’s generally sweet-natured and starved for affection. However, May had two misfortunes early in life: being the child of an obsessive-compulsive mother (Merle Kennedy) and having a lazy eye. This physical imperfection obsessed May’s mother and plagued May throughout her childhood, leaving May obsessed with the “best parts” of people. She finds herself attracted only to specific parts of people, their perfect parts, and this aspect of her nature has left her with a circle of friends consisting solely of Susie, a doll in a glass case that her mother presented to her with the words, “If you can’t find a friend, make one.” Even Susie is an unattainable thing because her mother forbade her from being touched, to keep her perfect (unlike May, of course).
While Susie stands locked in her case, May grows into adulthood and, armed with a pair of contact lenses that finally corrects her eye and gives her the confidence of perfection, she finally begins to seek out new friends. She’s especially attracted to local mechanic Adam (Jeremy Sisto) (“especially his hands,” she coos to Susie) and tries to find ways to make him her boyfriend. She also finds herself the object of the not-entirely-unwanted attraction of Polly (the surprisingly brunette Anna Faris), her co-worker at the local pet hospital. During this film’s first third, we can almost taste May’s longing; she’s sweet and attractive and deserves to be showered with affection, but her natural weirdness is a major stumbling block even to a guy like Adam, a confirmed horror film-freak. Early in their relationship, he asks her to tell her about her job, but she demurs, telling him it’s disgusting. “Disgust me,” he says, and she obliges by telling him a story about a dog whose stitches burst and left entrails all over the back lawn. A cut Adam’s face shows that he’s gotten more than he bargained for; he’s truly disgusted by the story that he practically begged May to tell, and this prefigures the failure of their brief relationship: Adam thinks of himself as a dark and creepy (aka interesting) guy because he watches Dario Argento films and has been making a short cannibal/love story film. At first, he thinks he’s found the perfect girl in May Canady, but he is a guy who thinks weirdness means you have horror posters on your wall and keep a few retractable knives on your shelves for fun. Walking down the corridor of weirdness to reach May Canady is definitely an eye-opener, and quite possibly a bridge too far.
I had the pleasure of seeing Lucky McKee’s film late in its theatrical run, two weeks before its DVD release, without having a single idea of what it was about: friends asked me to go to the movies with them, and I had even forgotten the name of the picture when we arrived at the cinema. But the next 95 minutes ensured that I would never forget the title again. May is a film that wants to be more than one genre and, amazingly enough, succeeds. The bulk of the picture gives us a sad/hopeful story about a young woman’s attempts to find love and acceptance in the world, only to plunge us into a path of no return when all of her normal attempts fail.
Chief among the pleasures of this film is the leading performance of Angela Bettis as May. Bettis is wonderfully effective in personalizing all of May’s many facets and emotions: from her initial uncertain feelings about Polly’s attraction to her to her bashful pursuit of Adam and finally her despair as she sits smoking on her own and can’t even get the cat to come near her. Bettis is a beautiful young woman, and it tears a viewer’s heart apart to see how desperately she wants Adam’s hands on her (in a marvelous scene, May sneaks up on Adam, who has fallen asleep in a café, and gingerly rubs her face into his outstretched hand). Late in the film, when May dresses up like Susie the doll and goes over to Polly’s house with something other than a little all-girl’s fun on her mind, the transformation is truly striking. She is the confident and attractive woman she always wanted to be, but she’s about to embark on a hideous adventure from which neither she nor anyone who crosses her path will return from.
But this is a horror movie, isn’t it? What’s all this stuff about a lonely girl and her friend the doll? Viewers tuning in for the first time might be shocked by the opening shot of May screaming and holding a blood-stained hand to her face, but then the film settles into the stride of the human drama story that it wants to tell. But we are given little hints throughout the film that events are going to turn dark: May’s boast that she can sew back on a dog’s missing leg and her stomach-churning story to Adam about the carnage after a bad decision during a dog’s operation clue us in that we’re not dealing with an ordinary girl. May wants love and deserves it, but her neurosis is a hurdle that few can jump. Briefly, May is entranced by Polly’s advances (despite an odd growth on Polly’s finger that contrasts with May’s belief in bodily perfection). Polly seems to accept May for who she is; she even seems to get off on May’s habit of pricking herself with a scalpel. But May discovers that Polly is a playgirl; upon arriving at her house she discovers her last brush with affection entertaining the long-legged Ambrosia (Nichole Hiltz). May realizes that she isn’t special in Polly’s eyes, she isn’t perfect (she doesn’t have Ambrosia’s long legs for a start), and this leads her back to square one, the little girl with an eyepatch who can’t find a friend. That poor little girl has turned into a grown woman who still yearns for the simple pleasures of childhood friendship.
“You said you liked weird,” May says when, after viewing his cannibal film, she bites his lip hard enough to draw blood, but Adam is past saving. “Not that weird,” he says, beating a hasty retreat. Adam was May’s best and last attempt to join the world of normal people. Her subsequent attempts at human contact fall unfortunately short. Her endeavor to become an assistant teacher for blind children, possibly because these children with faulty eyes may remind her of her own childhood stigma, starts off well; she connects with Petey (Rachel David) and is given a personalized clay ashtray for her efforts. So it seems odd that she would introduce Susie, locked in her glass case, to a classroom of blind children who can only see by touch. Petey demands that the doll be taken out and a struggle begins, which ends with the smashing of the case, a lot of bleeding fingers and the destruction of Susie. Her mother’s warning that Susie must never come out of her case has come true, and May is left without the one friend she thought would never leave her. What’s left of Susie is only…parts.
However, it takes one final act of rejection to send May over the edge. She meets a friendly punk called Blank (James Duvall) who seems to have a jujube fixation. But when he finds a dead cat in her freezer (May killed it in frustration when, while in a fit of despair, it refused to come close to her), he quite naturally rejects her. Her first reaction is to cry, and we feel for her (sure, keeping the cat is weird, but weird is what you get when you’re friends with May), but then comes the next reaction, the one we’ve been waiting for since the opening shot: she picks up a pair of scissors and stabs Blank through the forehead.
And so, with the words “if you can’t find a friend, make one,” May-The-Horror-Film begins. She decides to make herself a friend from the best parts of all the people she tried to connect with and who rejected her: Adam’s hands, Polly’s neck, Blank’s arms, etc. She kills Polly first, in a scene charged with the sadness of misunderstanding and missed opportunities. Polly may be a party-girl, but she does care for May deeply and May has misunderstood Polly’s playing the field as a rejection (Polly even says this herself, apologizing for her affair with Ambrosia and saying, “it’s just sex.”). We get a hint that, while this may not be the well of love and friendship that May has been looking for (is May a bisexual or is she simply starved for affection?), her relationship with Polly could be an important step to finding herself (and help her edge backwards from the cliff that she is currently dangling one foot over). But it’s too late; May produces a pair of scalpels and Polly thinks she’s in for another slightly sado-masochistic game. “I know you’d never hurt me, May,” she says with a smile on her face, the last thing she’ll ever say before May slowly and almost lovingly cuts her throat.
And so it begins. When May pays a visit to Adam, she is almost apologetic (“I need them, Adam,” referring to his hands) and her dour and drained attitude shows that this was the person she really wanted; if she can’t have his living hands caress her than she’ll just have to put his dead hands somewhere where they can be of some use to her. There must be a part of her that knows her plan is doomed because she demands that Adam touch her face one last time with his still-living hands before she pulls the scalpel out. But Adam is not in the mood and the touch he gives her is anything a caress. It is too late for the living hands to make her happy; the dead one will have to suffice.
When May returns home and puts her sewing skills to the test, she creates her friend, a dummy of body parts christened “Amy” (an anagram of “May” using the broken pieces of Petey’s ashtray). But like Petey and the other blind children, her new friend cannot see and May realizes what she has to do. The film circles back to its opening shot as May cuts out her own eyeball (presumably the lazy one) and places it on Amy’s “face.” As she pleads with the bundle of carnage to see her, something incredible happens; Amy lifts her arm and starts caressing May’s face with Adam’s hand.
The audience knows that this really isn’t happening; May is imagining this in a final fit of madness (she is quite possibly dying). This victory is a hollow one and yet, after all the pain that May has been through in her life, this moment seems justified. Adam’s hands are finally caressing her, just like she always wanted and, for one brief moment (just before the image cuts to black and the final credits rolls), May feels loved. May is the worst of cinema’s misunderstood murderers because it seems as if a simple hug, a kiss on the forehead and an understanding attitude could have stopped the carnage that takes place in the film’s final act, but no one in May’s life can see her for who she is (just like the friend she creates, Amy, cannot see her) and so May and her friends are left to their fates.
May’s ending is both gruesome and touching, allowing the poor girl a moment of joy in what we assume may just be her last moments in life (or of freedom). In its final frames, the film gives us a miracle. We end with May surrounded by death and carnage, but happier than she’s ever been in her life. In the pit of Hell that is her lonely, blood-soaked bedroom, her dreams have finally come true.