In high school, horror films were more than just movies for a certain type of person (usually outcasts). For some, they were badges of courage. Whether you enjoyed the actual experience of watching them or not, sitting through a particularly grisly horror flick came with bragging rights (and some of us wrongly believed those bragging rights would lead to sex!) I watched them alll: the Troma flicks, the goofy schlock of Henenlotter, everything Wes Craven and Clive Barker breathed on, Dario Argento’s oeuvre, anything that Tom Savini or Rob Baker touched, and even the Faces of Death series, which came with a literal badge of honor, a certificate you could take home from the movie theater and show all your friends. “Yes! A car fell on a man’s leg and I watched the tendons separate from his calf as he pulled the stump out! Go ahead. It’s OK. You can touch me.”
Gore has never been an issue, but the nihilism and unnecessary cruelty in horror movies over the last decade has been a problem for me. Maybe it’s age, but the kill has lost its thrill; it’s not about who can make the biggest head explosion, now it’s about the slow mutilation. I can still find the adrenaline-fueled joy in films like Zombieland or Piranha 3D or Planet Terror, but movies like Captivity and The Collector sap all the fun out of the genre for me.
I wrote about a film I saw at Sundance last week called The Woman, about a suburban family that found a feral woman out in the forest, chained her up in the basement, and attempted to civilize her through torture and rape. I hated it, even though it had a lot of that black humor that I onced so loved about those Troma films. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the director Lucky McKee or his work, and maybe that’s because I’ve lost touch with the rich trenches of horror genre over the last decade, for good reason in some cases. But I’ve read several interviews with McKee after the premier of The Woman in response to both the reception of the movie and that nutjob who created a ruckus during the screening, and I will enthusiastically concede that I misjudged the guy. He’s smart and eloquent, mild-mannered and thoughtful, and most of all, a well-intentioned genre director. He’s not the frat boy with a hard-on behind the camera that I might have assumed.
However, when a director or his fans characterize a rape-revenge fantasy as feminist, it rubs me the wrong way. It often feels like empty justification, an excuse to watch a woman brutally beaten and raped for their own twisted pleasure. I’m certain that’s the case for some who will watch The Woman, but I’m just as certain that it isn’t the case for the director. Thematically, The Woman is about how, in “civilizing” a woman, contemporary suburban types actually demonstrate how uncivilized they are, and if you can get past the torture and rape, it is a theme that resonates loudly (maybe moreso here, given the suburban Dad’s profession as a lawyer). I still can’t square that message with what I witnessed onscreen, nor do I agree with the way that McKee imparted that message. I can’t agree, either, with what many critics have suggested, that The Woman is a feminist film. Ask a feminist, and she’d probably disagree, and I don’t think it’s within the rights of many of the men who have never read a feminist text to characterize it as such. If The Woman were about a feral child who was civilized through torture and molestation, I doubt anyone would characterize it as a film about children’s rights.
But in light of his own defense of The Woman and, now, having see McKee’s debut film, the cult hit May, I’m as equally convinced that McKee’s intention was not to create a misogynistic film, but to use misogyny to demonstrate a point about the men/villains in his film. For me, it doesn’t redeem The Woman, but it does allow for more thoughtful consideration than my knee-jerk, “Go fuck yourself,” reaction. More importantly for the ostensible purpose of this piece, is that — because of The Woman — I was introduced to May. And May is a fantastic horror film.
May debuted at the 2002 Sundance film festival, and it stars Angela Bettis (who played the put-upon soccer mom in The Woman) as a young woman with some issues. (Fun Aside: May was edited by rock star Rian Johnson (Brick, Brothers Bloom)). As the result of growing up with a lazy eye, a pirate patch, and a controlling mother, May had only one friend, a large china doll she wasn’t allowed to take out of its glass case. That’s the situation, too, as an adult, where she works as a vet’s surgical assistant and spends her off-hours sewing for hobby and hanging out with her antique china doll. However, thanks to modern medicine, she is fitted with a pair of contacts that corrects her lazy eye, which gives her the confidence to pursue Adam (Jeremy Sisto), a man with whose beautiful hands she’s obsessed.
But May isn’t so good with relationships — she comes on too strong with Adam, and when Adam professes that he likes May’s weirdness, she decides to let it all loose. To Adam’s dismay, May is not disturbed by the short film that he makes about a couple that chews each other bloody for sexual gratification; she’s turned on by it and is shocked when Adam finds nothing erotic in her biting his lip and rubbing the blood on her face. When Adam spurns her advances, May turns to Polly (Anna Faris), a free-spirited lesbian who doesn’t mind a little cutting. But she’s not a one-woman lesbian, and May is not eager to share.
What transpires owes a lot to the aforementioned Argento, Edward Gorey, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (or, for a better tonal analogy, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator). It’s an almost whimsical meditation on loneliness and insecurity, on our uncontrolled impulses when they’re not tempered by societal niceties. McKee deftly marries a keen visual style (blood and milk!) with both the quirky and the macabre, creating in May a socially-awkward murderess. It’s a winsome blend of modern indie spirit, classic horror movie tropes and conventions, and a touch of old-school campy charm. Bettis gives a magnificent off-beat performance, creating a character that is both terrifying, darkly funny, and sympathetic. She’s riveting, grounding a transfixing movie featuring a crescendo of sly black humor that atom bombs you into a bloody and disturbing finale. For a fleeting hour-and-a-half, it brought me back to a time when I could still get a cinematic high on horror movies. Indeed, May is exactly the kind of clever genre film that plays by the rules, colors within the lines, but still creates something original, a horror film you can be proud to hold up as representative.