In the world of horror, the flavor of the month is always melting rapidly down the sleeves of genre fans. It seems we can’t turn the corner without publications proclaiming the next savior of sanguine cinema. Most fall by the wayside as the massive studio machine consumes their former low budget indie sensibilities—and the graveyard is littered with the corpses of fallen anti-heroes. It appeared for all intents and purposes that Lucky McKee was set to follow that same downward spiral of failed filmmakers. After blazing out of the gate with his 2002 Dario Argento-esque shocker MAY, McKee’s follow-up film THE WOODS lingered in some sort of post-production hell having only just reaching DVD in the fall of 2006. In the interim, an episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror may have given fans a bit of hope, but it paled in comparison to the visually arresting storytelling on display in his film debut.
About the same time as McKee’s SICK GIRL, an hour-long fable of lesbian entomologists was creeping across television screens; rumblings of a semi-sequel to MAY were beginning to ooze out of the proverbial woodwork. With star Angela Bettis behind the lens, McKee himself would be stepping out as ROMAN—another desolate soul—like May—looking for some spark of life in this harsh world.
If MAY was a chance for Bettis and McKee to shine a well focused light into the fragile world of a young woman, with a terrible need for acceptance, only to watch that world come crashing down, then ROMAN shares its ragged heart as a less formal, cinema verite styled descent into one hopeless man’s undoing.
Roman lives an unremarkable life, trapped in a dead end job welding large sheets of steel; he shares little in common with his co-workers. Roman is a creature of habit, returning every day to his Spartan apartment complex, situating himself in front of the large window while sipping from the same brand of beer and smoking the same cigarettes. What is Roman doing? He’s waiting. Waiting for the arrival of an angel—an angel in the form of Kristen Bell (PULSE). Unable to confront her, fate nevertheless brings the pair together. With a pattern of staccato delivery, he manages to charm the beautiful neighbor over the course of a few brief encounters and just as his happiness seems possible, tragedy strikes and he kills the innocent girl. Unable to cope with the loss, Roman buries the body under bags-upon-bags of ice and keeps her held up in his bathtub.
As time begins to pass and Roman adjusts to life without his love, a new girl, Eva (Nectar Rose, SERENITY) steps into his world and begins to actively court Roman. Like him, she too has a dark side, but it’s belied by her sunny disposition. Still, despite the glaring duality of the pair, this sweet and shiny girl manages to attract his attention. Perhaps Eva will be the one to save poor Roman or will she discover the horrifying secret hidden behind his bathroom door?
Forget everything you know about MAY. For two films that share such glittering generalities, they are miles apart in aesthetic. Despite it’s budgetary constraints, MAY is still, for all intents and purposes, a slick looking horror film with a bloody swath of satire running red right through the middle. ROMAN is all tragedy. It’s bleak and the ending is—while not wholly unexpected—nonetheless, utterly disheartening.
Most fans cheered Bettis’ May on, as she went about building her world of perfection. In ROMAN, McKee changes the focus of the audience’s sympathies and turns the man at the center of the film into the ultimate underdog. With the death of Kristen Bell, the audience is forced to witness one of the most uncomfortable 2 minutes of film in recent memory. The aftermath of that moment is even more disturbing as the realization of what has occurred consumes the character. Roman is not a wicked man. He’s not a faceless killer. Like May, he is utterly alone in the world and his desire for human interaction is so deep that the prospect of losing it forces a subconscious decision with unexpectedly catastrophic results.
When Roman meets Eva we can see that his walls are unfathomably high. Still, we hope and dream with him, that maybe, this girl will be the one to save his soul. Bettis and McKee have deliberately turned the pretext for the film on its ear by making Roman the most sympathetic of characters. Sure, we wanted May to have a better life, but ultimately the dream we have for Roman is to have a normal life. And this dream is shattered in the final frames of the film.
If the film has distractions, they falters fall mostly on the shoulders of first time director Bettis, who makes seemingly film-school style editing decisions and favors overlaying 2 and 3 images at a time on the screen—lending a decidedly 60’s vibe to the proceedings. The film is measured, and by that I mean, some viewers will find it laboriously slow paced. But, every ticking of the clock is moving the plot forward to the conclusion. It might seem a long journey to the finish line, but I assure you that if you give yourself over to the depth of the story, the prize at the end—however inevitable—is ultimately satisfying.
It’s no secret that McKee and Bettis work well together, it is surprising however that Bettis’—who is part of a filmmaking collective known as MoFreek—turn behind the lens is such an exceeding well-realized tale of tragedy. Is the film as great as MAY? The answer to that is almost as multi-layered as the story presented on screen. Regardless, one thing remains glaringly obvious. Bettis and McKee are a force in the industry and one that seems bent on defying the rules.