I always keep an eye out for new films from Lucky McKee, because he’s the director of my official Favorite Horror Movie of the 2010s, THE WOMAN. Even your average individual who knows who Lucky McKee is may not have heard of his young-people-find-some-stolen-cash thriller BLOOD MONEY or his Lifetime Channel domestic thriller KINDRED SPIRITS, but you bet I’ve seen and reviewed them. He has a new one that came out on VOD recently called OLD MAN, and I didn’t review that one because it’s so simple I didn’t really know how to write about it. It’s pretty much like a two person play with two actors I like – Stephen Lang (BAND OF THE HAND) and Marc Senter (BRAWLER) – having a long, increasingly strange conversation/confrontation in a remote cabin. I didn’t feel like I totally understood where it ended up, but I enjoyed the experience.
Before Halloween I rewatched Tobe Hooper’s THE TOOLBOX MURDERS, which stars long time McKee collaborator Angela Bettis, and I read in an old Fangoria that McKee himself almost played the toolbox murderer in it, and that he hooked up Hooper with cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who’d shot his first film. That inspired me to revisit MAY and also reminded me that despite all my bragging in the first paragraph there were two other McKee/Bettis joints from the aughts that I hadn’t actually seen. What the fuck dude. So I did a triple feature.
MAY (2002) is a charmingly idiosyncratic little debut, centering on a sort of likable but very fucked up female protagonist and using an indie rock soundtrack that makes it feel different from anything else in the genre at the time. Its stand out feature is that Bettis is just so weird and great in it, and I was not familiar with her at the time, though apparently I had seen her in GIRL INTERRUPTED.
She plays May, a socially awkward young woman who works as a veterinary assistant and doesn’t really have the sense not to tell civilians about the gross things she does at work. Growing up, other kids were mean to her and made fun of her lazy eye, so her mom gave her her favorite doll that she made for herself as a child, Suzie, to be her friend. Only thing is Mom didn’t want her to damage Suzie, so she wasn’t allowed to take her out of her glass case. Now here she is as an adult still having that thing mint in box and talking to it like it’s real. PIN meets TOY STORY 2.
New glasses straighten out her eye and help her build confidence, so she manages to get a date with Adam (Jeremy Sisto, THE DAY LINCOLN WAS SHOT), a dude whose hands she stares at and then fondles when he’s dozed off at a cafe. Sisto is good at playing the kinda likable, kinda hatable short-lived boyfriend (see also CLUELESS), here seeming lazily uninvested enough in the relationship that you can kinda buy him not being too turned off at first by May’s strangeness. He’s into horror and trying to be a filmmaker and decides to show her his student film, a corny gore comedy where a lovey-dovey picnic turns into a couple graphically biting each other’s fingers off. At first his concern is “is this too gross to show her?,” so he’s taken aback when it makes her cuddle with him and coo “It was sweet.” When they’re subsequently making out and she bites his lip so hard he bleeds he decides he’s out of there.
She also falls for one of her co-workers, Polly, played by Anna Faris, who had already been in SCARY MOVIE 1 & 2 as well as the Seattle-shot slasher movie LOVERS LANE. But Polly just thinks of May as a casual fling and still sees other people, which hurts May’s feelings, and she freaks out and accidentally kills her cat.
Later she meets a random liberty spike punk dude on a park bench. He can see that she’s sad and offers to buy her Jujubes. He ends up going back to her place and starts talking about being too hot and having to take off his shirt and stuff. This actor James Duval looked familiar, and it turns out he’s kind of an icon – he was in a bunch of Gregg Araki movies, and was the pivotal role of Frank in DONNIE DARKO, and he was in SLC PUNK! and GO and a DTV movie I saw called COMIC BOOK VILLAINS, but I now realize I must’ve recognized him from playing Randy Quaid’s son in INDEPENDENCE DAY. Anyway, he asks May for ice cubes for his nipples because he’s “still burning up,” which is why he finds her dead cat in the freezer and calls her a freak and she stabs him in the head.
A gimmick I like is that May punches Suzie’s case in anger one day and cracks the glass, and later whenever we hear the sound of the crack expanding it’s a reminder of the pressure May imagines on her to please this creepy doll (and by extension her cruel mother). Taking after her mother, she’s hyper-critical of the “good” and “bad” parts of people, fixating on Adam’s hands, Polly’s neck and the punk guy’s Frankenstein’s monster tattoo, for example, but being grossed out by Polly having a mole. The horror gimmick is that she decides to create her own “perfect” person, like a doll, by killing people and sewing together the parts of them she likes best.
I still enjoyed watching MAY, but definitely not as much as I did at the time. I think you kinda gotta be younger to make and/or love a movie like this. I probly related to May’s alienation a little back then but now it feels mostly cartoonish. Still, I appreciate the lead performance, the offbeat style and some of the little touches like the fact that May serves Adam Gatorade in wine glasses and doesn’t know that’s not the normal thing to do. And I like how May’s crimes come from a rare intersection of trauma, delusion, morbidity, animal medicine skills, and love of crafting. If you were a comedian trying to roast her you could call her Etsy Gein.
Recently I was talking to friends who had just seen PIECES for the first time and was reminded that at the end (SPOILER FOR PIECES) a sewn-together collection of body parts comes to life for no good reason (unless it’s a hallucination). (SPOILER FOR PIECES AND FOR MAY) This has a similar cool ending, though it lacks the dick-ripping. On one hand that makes the PIECES ending definitively superior, on the other hand it may be unfair to expect all movies to end with a dick-rip, though it would be ideal.
Four years later McKee and Bettis switched jobs to make ROMAN. Yes, Bettis makes her directorial debut (from a script by McKee) and McKee stars as the title character. Still itching to pick up that toolbox, I guess.
Roman is an awkward loner weirdo who works as a welder and lives in a drab studio apartment where his couch faces the window. At work we just see him in a tiny breakroom, barely talking, and being made fun of by his more social and macho co-workers. After work he does nothing but drink beer, smoke cigarettes and watch out the window hoping to see the woman who lives across from him, Isis (Kristen Bell, SPARTAN).
One day at work everybody’s talking about “the fights” and ask his opinion, but he says he doesn’t have a TV. Later he draws a TV on his wall and just stares at that all day. Eventually another co-worker takes pity on him and gives him a small black and white TV. It doesn’t get good reception, but he does manage to watch one of those weird cartoons that are in low budget movies that are clearly made by one of the filmmakers’ artist friends but are supposed to pass for some weird alternate dimension Looney Tunes or something.
One day Roman is having a beer on the roof of the apartment building and Isis is up there having a smoke. She comes over and talks to him, and it goes surprisingly well. He can barely get any words out, but makes her laugh once or twice, and she seems to think his shyness is endearing. The conversation leads to her actually willingly hanging out with him a few times, first on the roof, then coming over to his place. But when she gets uncomfortable and decides to go he blurts out something about how long he’s been watching her, and tries to physically stop her from leaving. In the struggle he accidentally kills her. I’m not saying that’s the most believable thing in the world, but he’s literally almost a foot and a half taller than her, so he seems very imposing despite his lankiness, and makes her seem very fragile.
So kinda like how May’s dating failures lead to collecting her favorite body parts, Roman’s lead to trying to hide body parts. He buries some and leaves some laying around the apartment. He tries to keep a low profile and imagines Isis is still around and has become his girlfriend. Which, not to get up on a soapbox, but in my opinion it’s unhealthy.
Then, improbably, he starts dating another neighbor, Eva (Nectar Rose, “Paradise” in Linklater’s version of BAD NEWS BEARS). She’s an eccentric artsy type with flowers in her hair who bangs on his window when she’s locked out of her apartment and is afraid to get the building manager because of the loud porn sounds coming out of his apartment. She seems kind of hippie-ish or new-agey but has an obsession with death that upsets Roman (because it reminds him of his recent past, I guess). She gets lusty talking about the macabre (a reverse May/Adam situation), but I think she would be freaked out if she noticed the severed leg that falls out from under the covers the first time they sleep together. He covers it with a blanket like somebody trying to hide a bong or porno mag or something.
An important thing I’ve been avoiding saying is that this doesn’t feel as much like a real movie as MAY does. It has a very low rent video look to it, mostly shot very straight on and plain with little artistic flair to its angles or lighting. Wikipedia says it has an estimated budget of $250,000, but that’s the same reported budget as TERRIFIER 2, so at least one of these figures has got to be wrong. I think this has to be way less expensive than that. It has the feel of college students making something over the weekend in the couple of locations they have access to, roping non-actor friends into awkwardly playing the bit parts.
Of course, Bell is a real actor, and a good choice to play an overwhelmingly positive person who you can at times buy talking and being nice to Roman. I assumed this had to be pre-fame for her to do a movie like this, so I was surprised to look it up and find out she was a couple seasons into Veronica Mars already. Presumably she’s old friends with Bettis, because they were both in PEOPLE ARE DEAD (2002) and LAST DAYS OF AMERICA (2005). In the former Bettis plays “Angela the Broadway actress” and Bell plays “Angela’s Friend #1;” in the latter Bettis plays “America the Woman” and Bell plays “Friend in New York #1.”
There is one part that’s visually impressive, and an effectively weird idea. (ENDING SPOILERS.) Roman’s ultimate undoing is that Eva commits suicide and it seems like he’ll be blamed for killing her. But she sees it as some kind of performance art piece, so she keeps her plans secret and invites him over. He delightedly follows a series of cute signs and arrows that lead him to a room that she has somehow made look like a forest. And she’s laying there dead in a bed of mud. It’s by far the most elaborate set in the movie – the rest all seems like it was shot in people’s apartments as-is – so that’s positive. Going out on a good note.
For what it’s worth, McKee is pretty good in the role. He has a convincing blank stare, timid voice and nervous laugh. It was a mistake to have him randomly start narrating in some scenes, but he’s mostly non-verbal and I think really captures that balance where somebody could look at him and see either a sweet nerd or a dangerous creep. He wisely doesn’t try to play crazy.
As a director Bettis captures a little bit of a McKee feel by having songs by the same guy as MAY – Jammes Luckett, credited as Poperratic.
I didn’t particularly like this one but at least it kept my interest. That’s more than I can say for many of the movies that look like this. Bettis did not return for the sequel ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., and has only directed one time since – the “E is for Exterminate” segment in ABCs OF DEATH (2012).
Finally I watched SICK GIRL, McKee’s Masters of Horror episode, which aired in January of 2006. It was season 1, episode 10, between William Malone and Larry Cohen. How, you may ask, was McKee a master of horror when he had only done MAY and THE WOODS, and THE WOODS was still sitting on a shelf? Well, maybe Tobe Hooper recommended him, or maybe he was one of the young guys coming to Mick Garris’s famous Masters of Horror dinners, but pretty much the answer is he was the understudy who got to fill in one night. According to Fangoria, Roger Corman was set to direct the episode, but had to drop out for health reasons. When McKee took over he worked with writer Sean Hood (HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION, CUBE 2: HYPERCUBE, THE CROW: WICKED PRAYER, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, THE LEGEND OF HERCULES) to rework the central couple as lesbians so he could cast his homey Angela Bettis as the lead instead of just some dude.
I don’t expect greatness from Masters of Horror episodes, though I’ve seen a few good ones. Don Coscarelli’s was my favorite, I remember liking the two John Carpenters, and that Argento one with Meat Loaf was kinda funny. I reviewed both of Hooper’s and found them more interesting than good. But to my surprise SICK GIRL was easily my favorite of these three McKee/Bettis joints. This one is genuinely a romantic comedy but with a huge insect that digs into people’s brains and takes them over. It’s like a really odd chapter of the MIMIC franchise.
Bettis stars as Ida Teeter, an entomologist who receives a mysterious package one day containing a huge mantis-like bug she’s never seen before. She names it Mick. She thinks it’s a new species, but before she can show it to her colleague it escapes and eats a small dog belonging to building manager Miss Beasley (Marcia Bennett, STREET LAW). So that’s the horror part of this story.
But more importantly Ida keeps getting dumped and stood up by women when they find out how obsessed she is with bugs. Her apartment has all kinds of tanks with exotic insects in them, like a giant centipede and stuff, so it’s kind of hard to hide. Her only friend is her co-worker Max (Jesse Hlubik, who’s in most of McKee’s stuff, including both versions of ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE), who gives her dumb advice like “leave them wanting more” and “women can drain your vital juices,” and insists that she should never mention bugs to women. I don’t know if they initially wrote him as a guy who has sexist bro talk with his lesbian friend, or if they just left the dialogue intact from the earlier draft where he was talking to a guy, but either way it’s a really funny idea.
On the positive side he pushes Ida to talk to Misty (Erin Brown, better known as Misty Mundae, prolific star of softcore porn genre parodies like SPIDERBABE, PLAY-MATE OF THE APES and LORD OF THE G-STRINGS). She’s a strange young woman who sits in the lobby of the building they work in drawing pixies. Usually her face stays hidden behind her long hair, but when she makes eye contact Ida is like va-va-voom!
They go on a date, and unlike all the couples we saw in MAY and ROMAN, they seem to both be weirdos in a similar way, and all the awkwardness is shared equally. They go back to Ida’s place on the bygone rationale that Misty wants to show her a DVD about pixies but she only has a VCR at her place. They get drunk while watching the movie and Misty falls asleep on the couch. Following Mark’s advice, Ida has moved all of her insects out of sight by cramming them in her bedroom, but when Misty sees them she’s not revolted – turns out her dad is also an entomologist, hence her hanging out in the building, and she’s very supportive of the bug obsession. So it’s a sweet moment where Ida realizes she doesn’t have to hide who she really is after all.
The flirtation and courtship between these two is very cute, but what’s most delightful about SICK GIRL is that Bettis plays Ida as a total goof. She’s an exaggerated nerd, but not any specific type of nerd you’ve seen before. She uses a funny voice and cadence and then she uses even funnier ones when she talks to her various bugs. It could definitely have gone wrong if improperly calibrated, but Bettis makes it really funny and endearing. I do not say this lightly: it reminds me of a Nic Cage performance. Bizarro choices nobody else would make that really give the material more personality. Now I wish she’d get to do more comedy.
There’s tension with Miss Beasley that’s unrelated to the dog. She notices two girls together and is clearly homophobic. It really bothers her that her granddaughter Betty (Chandra Berg, Battlestar Galactica: Razor), who still wears her ladybug costume four months after Halloween and insists that everyone call her Ladybug, really likes Ida.
The exciting thing about Masters of Horror is giving a bunch of great directors free rein to make an hour long movie without much interference or commercial consideration. The downside is that they’re all shooting in Vancouver using the same TV crew, so even on the good ones there tends to be a flattening of the directors’ personalities and styles, making them feel kinda watered down. For McKee it really worked out, even having taken over someone else’s project. He got a bunch of his regulars in the leads, made something that felt a little outside of standard horror formats, with his usual non-judgmental portrayal of screwy characters, even got his guy Poperratic doing the indie rock type soundtrack. He’s got his theme of a socially awkward misfit who watches their crush for a long time and isn’t honest about it when they get to know each other, though in this case the story is told from the other character’s perspective.
And you know I like my odd little bits of flair. One I like here is a variation of that trope where a character sees or hears something upsetting, and it cuts to a closeup of their hand as they tense up and squeeze whatever they’re holding, perhaps crumpling a paper or a styrofoam cup or breaking a glass. Poor Betty the ladybug sees her grandma dead and screams, and then we see her little hand squeezing tight on her ice cream sandwich, smooshing it. I don’t think I’ve seen that one before.
Instead of feeling like a movie director slumming in TV, I think this arguably feels a little more polished than MAY, especially when you get to the bug monster by KNB EFX Group. And it’s obviously much slicker than ROMAN.
It’s rare that I find the characters in these anthology shows as fun to watch as these ones. Usually I would be pretty impatient for it to get to the horror stuff, but not here at all. Still, there’s a good gross-out payoff. We learn that Mick has been nesting inside Misty’s pillow (leaving a nasty mucus smear all over it) and probing into her ear at night. In fact Misty’s long hair has been hiding that her ear has grown over with a nasty lump of flesh that might be described as Cronenbergian or Krueger-esque. Mick takes over her brain and she starts acting differently, doing things like obscenely telling off Miss Beasley in a way that is very satisfying to her but upsetting to Ida since she’s gonna get her ass evicted. It’s a story about that point in a relationship when the newness wears off and you start seeing the person’s more candid and sometimes nastier side. But also it’s a story about how Misty turns into a cool bug monster and splatters Max’s head against a wall.
I guess it doesn’t really count as a happy ending that Ida and Misty lay on the couch together impregnated with bug babies and being controlled by Mick sitting between them puppeteering them by running antennae through their earholes, but I don’t know, I thought it was kinda sweet. I like those two together. Good episode.
I’m glad I decided to watch these together, because they end up working as a thematic trilogy. Soon after making these, McKee gravitated away from lonely single psychopaths and toward the novels of Jack Ketchum. He got the rights to produce an adaptation of THE LOST, directed part of RED (but was replaced under circumstances that have never really been made public), then actually co-wrote THE WOMAN with Ketchum, as both a movie and book, and finally executive produced the Pollyanna-McIntosh-directed continuation DARLIN’. As far as his Ketchumless works, he produced THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT, a more serious and interesting movie than the title implies – or at least made interesting by being serious even though that title is an accurate description of the main character.
I think McKee has definitely grown as a filmmaker, and these later movies are much smarter and more thematically rich. But he started from an interesting place too.
In closing, I advise you to check out SICK GIRL.