Similar to my recent viewing of “Cosmopolis”, after my initial watch of “Excision” I was totally unsure about whether or not I liked the film. This film about a disturbed teenager goes places so dark that it actually had me feeling queasy in places. However after letting the film digest for a while, I have come to the conclusion that not only do I like the film, but it is also something of a mini-masterpiece, and something completely different for the horror genre.
The film is about Pauline, a delusional high school student, who lives at home with her parents and her cystic fibrosis afflicted younger sister, Grace. It is immediately obvious that there is something a little off with Pauline, she is just plain weird and because of this she has to deal with, on a daily basis, the fact that she is one of society’s outcasts. None of the kids at school want anything to do with Pauline because of her odd behavior and she has no friends. At home, she has a very combative relationship with her mother who thinks that Pauline’s problems are due to growing up and being a teenager. However Pauline believes that there is something wrong with her and in need of professional psychiatric help, but her parents balk at the idea of this due to the high costs involved and instead send her to a local priest where she can air her troubles. The only good thing in Pauline’s life is Grace even though she is jealous of the attention and love she gets off her mother. Pauline loves her sister and would do anything to see her get better. The other thing that Pauline appears to love is blood. She is drawn to it, dreams about it, and just seems to have an unhealthy relationship to it. Pauline’s goal in life is to become a surgeon (no doubt related to the close contact with blood). As delusional as this dream is, due to her terrible grades at school, Pauline believes that she has a gift and at night when she sleeps, this is all she dreams about. As Pauline slips further away from reality towards insanity she finds herself drawing inspiration from her dreams as she comes up with the perfect idea (in her mind) to attain what she desires most of all: her mother’s love.
This is such a sad and painful film. As I mentioned above, during my initial viewing of “Excision” I was really taken aback by the grotesque elements of the film. It really does go to a number of uncomfortable places throughout the entirety of the film and it affected me in a way that I wasn’t even sure if I liked the film. I have now seen “Excision” three times and I can safely say that it is a brilliant film and scenes that I once found to be shocking or grotesque no longer affect me that way anymore. They are all just facets of who Pauline is as a person; a complex, lonely and mentally disturbed teenager just trying to make a connection in the world but not knowing how to go the right way about it. It is the humanity of the story that really shined through during my repeat viewings and the truthfulness of what is being presented, rather than the gore or grotesque images. At the core of the film, “Excision” is really about a teenage girl wanting the love of her mother. Pauline is forever reminded by just how much her parents love her sister Grace by the constant fawning over her. She is their angel and can do no wrong, and this is what Pauline wants; the kind of attention Grace always gets. However this attention has a lot to do with the fact that Grace is sick and as such the parents are overly protective of her. Pauline’s relationship with her mother is a complex one because it is so combative and although Pauline does not believe this, it is obvious that her mother does indeed love her.
“Excision” is filled with brilliant performances which make this odd story work so well, but two people in particular have to be highlighted. The first is AnnaLynne McCord who plays Pauline. She is simply amazing in the role and owns it from the very first frame. I was not aware of McCord’s work on her television show “90210” where she plays a gorgeous blond girl, but here in “Excision” she goes totally against her glamour image to play Pauline as a straggly haired, pimply faced, brunette who is always slouching and is nothing that you would ever call attractive. Her transformation into the role is simply amazing and looking at photos of her on the “90210” show and in real life, there is no way that you would believe this is the same woman playing Pauline; she totally commits to the role. The only time you get to see some of McCord’s natural beauty in “Excision” is during Pauline’s dream sequences because she visualizes herself looking much prettier in these dreams. McCord is so natural as Pauline portraying her awkwardness perfectly. She goes to a number of very dark places in the film and never once flinches from the reality she is portraying especially towards the end. There are a number of emotional moments particularly with her mother that McCord also never misses on. It really is a stunning performance worthy of an Academy Award nomination.
The other person that has to be mentioned is Traci Lords who plays Pauline’s mother, Phyllis. I was stunned at just how good Lords was here, she is amazing. She plays the repressed, uptight mother role to perfection but she also hits some amazingly truthful emotional beats throughout the film. One of the most painful scenes within the film that rings so true as well is after her and Pauline have had a fight at the dinner table and Phyllis states that no matter who hard she tries she cannot love Pauline and that she is a menace. Pauline overhears this and bawls her eyes out. It is so sad and Phyllis obviously was blowing off steam in the moment and did not mean what she said but it is such a small and painful scene. Lords also has some funny moments with her husband Bob, played by Roger Bart, who has been so emasculated by this woman that his opinion no longer holds water at family mealtimes. Lords’ greatest moment comes at the very end of the film, which obviously I cannot talk about, but it relies on a number of different emotions and reactions all playing out on her face at once and she nails it. Her blood curdling scream that ends the film is just so chilling too.
As I mentioned above though everyone gives great performances here. The film is littered with cameos and small roles filled by brilliant actors. Malcolm McDowell gives a hilarious performance as one of Pauline’s teachers, Ray Wise likewise as the principal (love his moment with George Bush), John Waters plays the priest who Pauline is forced to air her troubles to and let me tell you when John Waters tells you that “you are a very disturbed young girl”, you had better believe it, and I cannot forget to mention Ariel Winter who plays Grace, she gives a beautifully nuanced and innocent performance. As you may be able to tell, “Excision” is really more of a black comedy than a horror film and Winter has one of the best lines in the film delivered in dead-pan style: “Do you know what’s the worst thing about having cystic fibrosis?” Dad: “What’s that honey?” Grace: “When your friends die”. It is actually a sad moment in the film but at the same time so funny, and Roger Bart’s reaction when his daughter says that is gold; he just looks so defeated.
Visually, “Excision” is very interesting because the director, Richard Bates Jnr., has gone against the norm of shooting everything in dark, dimly lit interiors. For such a dark tale, you would assume that this is the way he would have gone but he does the opposite and makes the film pop with vivid colours and everything brightly lit as possible. It is a bold choice that works very well indeed. The only time the colour is drained from the film is during the finale which is very dark indeed. Also the way the film has been blocked is quite strange, with characters always positioned centre frame, with very little camera movement. It is quite odd to look at but it somehow draws you into the drama of the story as well. When the film does become flamboyant though is during Pauline’s dreams. This is when the imagery of the film is at its most disturbing and yet also its most beautiful. Again, these scenes are filled with dazzling colours with the colour blue dominating heavily as well as the red of the blood that is flowing thick and fast. The dream sequences are heavily stylized and completely different from the rest of the film and while these scenes are incredibly bloody, I would hesitate to call them gory, they are very artistic in fact. Something I admit I missed on my initial viewing of the film is the progression within each of the dream sequences in regards to Pauline’s confidence and self worth. In the final one we witness that she is at the top of the food chain looking down at everyone else, no doubt signaling in her mind that she is ready to do what has to be done.
Overall, I love Richard Bates’ debut feature “Excision” (which he also incidentally shot as a short back in 2008). It is such an incredibly painful and sad human story that has been brilliantly acted and designed. Both Traci Lords and AnnaLynne McCord give amazing performances within the film that give “Excision” its truth and heart. Due to the extreme nature of the film (not to mention its finale), this is a film that will not be for everyone as it is very graphic and has some truly queasy scenes involving blood (not just any blood either, I am talking menstrual blood), however if you think you can handle these scenes, this is a film that is very much worth seeing. Best of all is that it holds up with repeated viewings. I highly recommend “Excision” , it is one of the films of the year, and look forward to whatever Richard Bates brings us in the future.