Thursday, 6 October 2011

Who Is Lucky McKee and Why Is Everyone Saying These Horrible Things About Him?

Image: Revolver Entertainment

If you’re interested in the state of modern horror, you’re probably aware of the controversy surrounding The Woman. Some audiences love it, while some are utterly repulsed. Director and co-writer Lucky McKee has come in for some very harsh professional and personal criticism and some very high praise. Looking back at his career so far, how did he end up here? 

Back in 2002, McKee seemed to be on his way to great things. His first feature, May, had been very well received by critics and by horror fans, and quickly gained a cult following. It starred Angela Bettis as the titular loner who longs for companionship and understanding. She finds a man who she thinks is a good match (Jeremy Sisto), but he dumps her after she takes his liking for "weird" to extremes. May takes this rejection badly and begins to crack. Remembering her mother’s words (“If you can’t find a friend, make one”), she sets out to make a beautiful whole from beautiful parts. May is arguably more of a quirky dark comedy than a straight horror film, and is careful to make you care about the lead character (helped by Bettis’ wonderful performance) before she breaks out the scissors. It was definitely a film that made you excited to see what the makers would do next.

Riding the wave of acclaim for his debut, McKee moved onto bigger things. He signed on to direct The Woods, a much larger (but still not big) budget horror film about a young girl who is sent to a boarding school, only to discover that there’s something sinister going on. With a Dario Argento-esque setting and a cast that included indie queen Patricia Clarkson (Shutter Island) and horror icon Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead), The Woods was an enticing proposition. There was even a role for Bettis as “The Voice of the Woods”. But the film sat on the shelf for three years, with little to no explanation offered. There were rumours of the studio being unhappy with the finished product, on top of which the studio changed hands, and The Woods was finally released straight to DVD in the UK. The film does have a lot to admire. There's his twisted sense of humour, a great soundtrack, and some memorable sequences. However, for all its charm, it is certainly flawed.

While The Woods languished without distribution, McKee was chosen to direct one of the hour-long mini-films for Mick Garris’ series Masters of Horror. The concept of the series was to give horror legends, including John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and Dario Argento, an hour to do whatever they wanted. McKee was certainly the greenest of the bunch, but delivered one of the most entertaining episodes with Sick Girl. With the emphasis on dark comedy and gooey effects, it starred Bettis as an awkward entomologist who realises that one of her new bugs is not only dangerous, but has bitten and infected her new girlfriend (softcore star Misty Mundae). It’s knowingly silly and lightweight but it’s a lot of fun.

After The Woods was finally given an undeservedly muted release, McKee began work on Red, an adaptation of a Jack Ketchum novel. The film starred Brian Cox as a man who takes brutal revenge on the young teenagers who murder his dog. At some point during shooting, McKee and Angela Bettis were fired. McKee was replaced with Trygve Allister Diesen, and Bettis with Kim Dickens (Deadwood). There’s never been any real explanation offered by the producers, although it’s rumoured that Bettis’ firing was one of the reasons behind McKee’s departure. McKee does retain a co-director credit but it’s impossible to view the film without wondering what’s his and what’s Diesen’s. It’s efficient enough, with a superb performance from Cox. 

Having been treated badly on The Woods and worse on Red, McKee was determined to set up a film where he had complete creative control. He co-wrote a sequel to Jack Ketchum’s book Offspring with the horror legend himself, which the two turned into a screenplay.  It was called The Woman, and McKee took care to secure independent financing, a producer he trusted, Final Cut, and, of course, his old friend Angela Bettis. The result is a fierce, brutal, angry piece of work that sets out to challenge audiences and shows that he is a talent to be reckoned with. You can read about The Woman further in our review. On the basis of his latest offering, and seeing what happens when he’s left to his own devises, we hope he keeps creative control.

JH

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