3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Contrary to recent movie trends, "gore" is not synonymous with "horror." And although director Lucky McKee's "May" has its sticky, red-splotched moments, it retains a fierce, palpable creepiness that tugs at you long after the lights come up.
What sticks with you isn't the blood, but the piano-wire tightrope walked by writer/director McKee as he plays against audience expectations - all the while teetering dangerously close to slasher-movie conventions.
In naming his movie after its awkward, ugly duckling veterinarian, perhaps McKee is signaling us that he's more interested in character than spectacle. But spectacle there is, mostly in the form of a placid, Marilyn Manson-looking doll that May calls her "best friend" and a flirty lesbian co-worker who goes heavy on the lipstick (Anna Faris).
A hyper-shy child with a lazy eye, May began her path of alienation in grade school due to an eye patch worn to correct her optical problem. During a lonely birthday celebration, her mother tells her, "If you can't find a friend, make one," and gives May a chalky-white, handmade doll in a glass case. Her mother's advice echoes (perhaps one too many times) throughout the film as May grows up, and we find out that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned - especially when she isn't squeamish and is good with a needle and thread.
Those expecting a traditional teen splatter film will be surprised that "May" doesn't shovel cliche scare tactics at its audience. Nor does it carpet-bomb viewers with cheap, loud sound effects meant to beat you into submission.McKee is much more deliberate and careful metering out his scares - and therefore "May" is much more menacing. It's the anticipation of fright more than anything else that keeps us riveted by May's every move, every wounded expression. McKee keeps the film taut and claustrophobic, relying on simple visual compositions (with May's doll almost constantly in the background) and May's spiral into blood fetishism and madness. He threatens to dish timeworn supernatural conceits, only to back away and offer a psychological framework to explain May's distress. And then he shows that demonic-looking doll again.
Jeremy Sisto of "Six Feet Under" plays Adam, May's love interest and an amateur filmmaker with "strong hands." "Pretty parts no pretty wholes," May says before she starts piecing things together. Meanwhile, she attempts to connect with a class of blind children, reaching out to keep from drowning in her own isolation.
With each failure, May comes undone, bit by bit - signaled by the unnerving sound of her cracking doll case. Like Alejandro Amenabar's "The Others," "May" isn't completely without Hollywood horror components: a ghoulish doll, gratuitous flaunting of sexual taboos and a damaged protagonist. But McKee, like Amenabar, knows how to position his film against type - which ultimately makes "May" a refreshing, macabre tale.
Directed by Lucky McKee; screenplay by McKee; photographed by Steve Yedlin; edited by Debra Goldfield, Rian Johnson; production design by Leslie Grace Keel; produced by Marius Balchunas, Eric Koskin, Scott Sturgeon, John Veague. A Lions Gate release; opens Friday, June 6. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: R (strong violence/gore, some sexuality and language).
May Canady - Angela Bettis
Polly - Anna Farris
Blank - James Duval
Adam - Jeremy Sisto