by Aidan Carr
The film I’m adapting is called MAY. It is has a cult reputation of sorts—it frequently makes pop “Top 10 Horror of 2000’s” List, a horror-hipster favorite. This is actually how I discovered it—on such a list, the author ranked MAY as his second favorite of the decade, remarking that it was “not so much scary as sad,” which intrigued me.
“Sadder than scarier” is a fair assessment; unlike most contemporary horror films, MAY focuses on the monster and not the victims. It has this (and more, as you’ll see) in common with Frankenstein—a difference of purpose, more about why terrible things happen than the thrill of them happening.
MAY was written by Lucky McKee when he was a film student at the University of Southern California, and it is a lonely film—the eponymous monster/heroine is in nearly every frame, and half of these by herself. May cannot hold a conversation. Even animals become suspicious of her. As a member of the outside world, such a withdrawal is unsettling, disturbing, a harbinger of something darker and perhaps dangerous. Disordered social interactions point towards inner instability, and this frightens us. Pariahs scare us.
I saw a man in a park late at night in Barcelona pace in tiny circles, reciting a mélange of Arabic and Spanish syllables with no connection, and I stayed away.
Imagine this from the inside. That man pacing in circles was speaking, trying to communicate, and yet all his faculties for doing so were broken. All he can muster are the short-circuits of syllables. How terrifying this must be; more than terrifying, how lonely.
This is May’s problem, though it is not as pronounced and all the more insidious—her signals too are broken, but they take on the illusion of order and coherence. They trick people for a time, herself included. May is fascinating—she makes her own clothes, she works for an idiomatically-challenged Eastern European veterinarian, she has an elaborate collection of fine porcelain dolls—for a time. Soon her obsessions—stitches and sutures, needles and scalpels, dolls—are no longer fascinating; they are dangerous. When her newfound ‘friends’ sense this danger, they too run away. Her own realization that she scares people is her anagnorisis, and nobody survives it.
The way May’s compulsions finally play out is this; all of the people she meets through the course of the film possess a body part that May finds particularly attractive. One man’s hands, a woman’s neck, another’s legs, et cetera. May has long since outgrown dolls and needs human company, hence why she meet all these people who rejected her in the first place. Nobody wants May’s company, so she resolves to fashion someone who does, out of all of the best parts of the people she knows. The creation of this new doll, ‘Amy,’ ends the film.
A strange subject for a musical, you’d correctly think. One key aspect allows room for music in this story, even begs for it. May holds unspoken conversations with her doll Suzy that drive her emotional arc; these conversations are full of the kind of desperation and yearning and pure desire that sings onstage, and dolls are an inventive and unusual instrument with which to sing those desires. Sewing machines, too, have their own strange and strangely beautiful music, akin to the musique concrete of Edgard Varése or the minimalism of Steve Reich. Out of this kernel—musicalizing May’s emotional interior life, accompanying it with the sounds of the real world like the sewing machine—I’ve developed a sort of musical vocabulary that underpins all May’s movements in the world. Several other implications follow from this central conceit, many of them structural—they will be discussed in the posts that come.
A bottom line: MAY will be a musical like Sweeney Todd, that follows a monster through her emergence as such; it will be a musical like Cabaret, with a nagging discomfort that sprouts into full fledged dread; and it will be more, an electronic aberration, a show soaked in samples and synthesizers and stitches instead of trumpets and saxophones, something funny and uncomfortable and uncomfortable because it is funny, something sadder than scary. (All this, I hope.)