For this month’s Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, we’re coming out of the spooky season with a movie picked out by BJ Colangelo, a horror writer who’s got bylines all over the place, including Fangoria, Playboy, and Bitch Flicks. She also recently released Powerbomb, a horror movie centered in the world of professional wrestling that she co-wrote with R. Zachary Shildwachter and Wes Allen, directed with Shildwachter, and produced through their production company, Sickening Pictures.
Colangelo’s choice for this month is Lucky McKee’s directorial debut, May, a film that centers on a troubled young girl named… well, May (Angela Bettis). After a childhood spent with an overly protective mother whose neuroses fixated on May’s wandering eye, a grown-up May spends most of her time alone with her only friend being the doll her mother gave her as a kid. Pining after a handsome film student named Adam (Jeremy Sisto) and navigating a budding relationship with coworker Polly (Anna Faris), we soon realize that May’s emotional issues (along with her obsession for body parts) will cause some very real damage for the people in her life.
Having never seen a film from McKee before, I was excited to take this opportunity to finally dive into one. As it turns out, May was Colangelo’s first McKee film as well, but she first saw it in high school as a bit of a lark.
My friends and I used to go to my local mom-and-pop video store (which turned into a Blockbuster) and every weekend we would each pick five movies based solely on the covers. The goal was to find something that was horrible, absolute trash. Just the worst of the worst. We looked at [May’s] cover and we went, “Oh, this looks awful. I can't wait!”
But the cover, which Colangelo describes as pitching a “weird, industrial goth music video,” hides a fantastic character piece that plays out much quieter than one would think. McKee dwells on the lasting effects of emotional abuse, but he does so in a way that Colangelo describes as being more nuanced than you usually see from horror movies at the time.
[May’s] mother is a helicopter parent and she's micromanaging, but it’s done in these very small and impactful ways. You never see her as an abusive parent the way we normally do, with her screaming or yelling at her, saying, “You can't do that! Don't do that, don't touch this!” That's not how she interacts with her, and I think that makes it harder for us to recognize the treatment that she's giving as abusive. And that's littered throughout [the movie], even when May is an adult and is interacting with the world around her, it's not a giant tornado temper tantrum. It's not Carrie. It's very small and very subtle, but everything about May is just off. It's not in your face, it's not being hammered into your skull. It's just a little off... and that gives a great sense of unease throughout the entire performance.
That unease grows throughout the film as we see May become more and more unhinged, her interactions with people growing more uncomfortable, and her value of people becoming more focused on their individual body parts. And with that comes an interesting exploration of gender dynamics in a scene that Colangelo notes first looks rather innocuous.
When she goes to the laundromat, she puts down all the laundry machine lids so that if [Adam] shows up by chance, he has no choice but to be near her. And in a way you look at that and you're like, “Oh that's kind of sad,” but then at the same time you have that moment of, “Well that's kind of predatory.” And because it's being done by this awkward girl who has limited social skills, we feel sorry for her. But if that was a Patrick Bateman, we'd be scared. And I think that's what makes it so interesting... there's all these red flags that there's something wrong with her, she needs serious help, and she's dangerous. But we don't see those red flags because we feel sorry for her.
And the laundromat scene isn’t the only indication that May poses a threat. She rubs her face on Adam’s hands after he falls asleep in a diner. She stands outside his house for hours at a time without ringing the door. She even bites his lip to imitate the cannibal couple he depicted in his grisly short film, not recognizing the difference between fictional characters and what’s acceptable behavior in real life. That Adam, and to an extent us as the audience, don’t take these warning signs for what they are indicates the contrast in the social education given based on gender.
I think it's also telling of how we socially condition boys and men with danger. With women, we’re conditioned to be untrusting of everybody at all times because the likelihood that we're going to experience personal danger or violence is very, very high. So if the roles had been reversed and this was [Adam] putting his face in May's hands, she probably would have freaked out and called the cops, saying, “This guy's a weirdo,” and that would have been the end of the story. But we don't raise men to look for those dangerous signs the way that we do women, so he doesn't fully realize her capabilities until it's too late, because everything just gets written off as, “Oh, she's weird, oh she’s sad. Oh, this poor girl.” And we don't give that same sort of “woe is me” attitude toward weird men.
What also makes May interesting is that we see bits and pieces of ourselves in her. There were several awkward moments between May and Adam that had me recalling my own cringeworthy attempts at social interaction. By watching this movie primarily through May’s point of view, we see her pain and want to sympathize with her, wishing that other characters would give her the relationship she so desperately craves. Colangelo similarly identifies with certain aspects of May as a person, but as the world has changed, so too has her interpretation of the film in a way that’s much more challenging and complex.
My love of this film has evolved over time. Obviously, when I saw this movie in high school, I was also a weirdo goth kid with weird interests. The scene where she goes to Adam’s apartment, then she sees the Dario Argento Opera art piece on the wall, as a viewer I was like, “Yes! This is great. I love this!” That is exactly the kind of person who I would hang out with. I used to relate so much to her character... I'm not going to kill people, but I feel very seen by her. And as I've gotten older, and the world around me has changed, I'm now viewing it a lot more as a cautionary tale, specifically in terms of, “Well, [Adam] should have been a little bit nicer to her,” because I had the same thought for years. Maybe if Adam was a little bit nicer, maybe if people would just give her a chance... But also I'm realizing that is this exact same sort of argument that the incels make about justifying their violence towards women: “Well, maybe if these women gave me a chance, maybe if they were a little bit nicer to me I wouldn't have to kill them or harass them.” May is basically the poster child for the incel movement, if incels were weird girls. That's what we're watching here, and it's very interesting because this movie was made forever ago, so McKee was very ahead of his time in tackling these topics that now are kind of becoming a huge problem in our culture.
And that’s not a means to undermine the importance of the threat that incels pose, or to say that women perpetuate toxic masculinity in the same fashion as incels. In fact, the aggressive, incel brand of toxic masculinity isn’t the only kind we see on display. Take Adam, who doesn’t deserve his ultimate fate, but, as Colangelo notes, is also predatory towards May before he realizes the depth of her emotional issues.
I think that Adam is a really good example of that toxic masculinity that isn't overly aggressive. He's going to be the one that's like, “Hey, I've got some art to show you.” He's that guy, going, “Hey let me get into your pants through my poetry.” [With May] he's just seeing this girl who follows [him] around like a sick puppy, and in his asshole-ish nature he is sort of taking advantage of that. Because he recognizes that there's something off with her (he doesn't realize to what extent) and rather than being like, “Okay, you know what, this is a girl that I should probably let down easy and let her go.” He's very much like, “Nope, I'm going to get what I want out of her and leave her.” And that's what makes him an asshole. Not that he didn't try to save her, but he was clearly aware that she was emotionally not mature enough for this and he did it anyway.
What makes May so challenging is that while we sympathize with her, we realize that years of emotional abuse have left her incapable of finding a healthy relationship with anyone. And even accounting for Adam’s underlying awfulness, May’s increasing aggression toward both him and Polly is picks up momentum in its inevitable path to tragedy.
We're basically watching a car crash in slow motion because there's no other outcome to this. There's no way that it's going to end in any other way and there's nothing that we can do to stop it. Because it's not up to us to stop it, and I think that's the same mentality that we have with this incel movement. Then it's sad because these people are clearly so damaged and so indoctrinated, we can't be the ones to fix them. They have to want to fix themselves.
Colangelo acknowledges that this is a challenging proposition, and her professional background has shown her just how difficult that can be in practice.
I work in social emotional education and my classroom is one of restorative justice rather than punitive practice. So I will have kids that will beat the shit out of each other in the middle of my classes, and I don't suspend them because that doesn't actually fix the problem. It doesn't make the anger go away and it doesn't make any of the kids hold themselves accountable for the problems they've caused by fighting in class or fighting with each other. It just means that they go and get suspended for three days and they've had three days to sit and stew in their rage. And then they fight again.
So with that being my background, I have a great deal of empathy for a character like May, and I guess that also means that I have a great deal of empathy for people who have similar problems. And it's one of those things where I can look at her and recognize that she's hurting and she's in pain, but also that she's never been held accountable for any of the weird things she's done. And what happened with Adam and Polly before she went on her killing spree, any of the things that made them feel uncomfortable rather than explaining to her, “Hey this was not cool and here's why,” they just sort of ghosted her so then she didn't learn anything, and was just filled with more rage. They suspended her for three days instead of talking about the problem. And obviously it's not people's job to fix people or educate them, but I definitely see the symptoms and the buildup that led to her finally snapping, and I get it.
From a narrative standpoint, the writing is on the wall for how May’s story will end from the very beginning. McKee even shows us a glimpse of May hurting herself at the beginning of the movie, although he doesn’t show what she’s done to those around her. And that’s what makes the film so frightening. It’s the idea that we really don’t know what baggage people are carrying and how it will manifest itself. But I did wonder what, in some alternate universe, a happy ending would look like for May.
I think it would have been if someone had explained to her why things are the way they are, because even her mother as a child when she has covered up her eyepatch... never explained to her why she's asking her to do that. No one has ever explained to May “why.” And while it's not the universe’s job to walk someone through life, I think a happy ending for May would have been if somebody had just talked to her and said, “Hey, why do you do this?” And actually hear her, and see her... and have a conversation with her. And it's difficult because she is weird. And by “weird” I mean she's outside of the norm, she's very atypical. And I think that the best case for her would have been if Adam, Polly, or even the dude she meets at the bus stop had gone, “Hey, look, I hear you and I see you. Have you ever talked to someone about this? Maybe we can get you some help because you're clearly hurting and let's figure out a way to make that hurt go away.” And maybe they're not the one who fixes that problem. Obviously they can't hold her hand and take her to therapy or something, but I think if somebody had just said, “I see you and you're hurting and you shouldn't feel that way,” I think that would have made a world of difference. And it's a difficult thing because then you're also kind of putting the pressure and the responsibility on other people, and that's what makes it hard and that's what makes May such an interesting film, because it's not easy.
Through May, McKee presents us with someone we can recognize as sympathetic and someone we can relate to on a certain level. But he’s also presenting us with someone capable of committing horrible acts without giving us any clear answer as to how those acts could have been prevented. And for Colangelo, McKee is daring the audience to connect with a character who, in different circumstances, we might normally just write off as a monster.
So many of us have seen a little bit of ourselves in May in that tragedy of feeling misunderstood, feeling unwanted, and feeling like you're never going to ever get what you actually want. It's important to know that even the people that we dislike or disagree with are also feeling those same things, and in order for us to have somewhat of a better human experience, and if we want to fix these problems in the world, we have to remember that. Because it's hard to do, and we need to have more nuanced discussions like this because I know the second this goes live there are going to be a lot of women horror fans who are going to be furious that I'm comparing [May] to an incel, but unfortunately it tracks. And those have to be things that we can recognize. We have to be able to see the monsters in ourselves the way we can see them in other people.