Every now and then, a film comes along that challenges and defies convention…which, when it comes down to it, is a diplomatic way of saying writer/director Richard Bates Junior’s EXCISION clawed and burrowed its way inside my mind, where it has been ever since viewing it for the first time over a week ago. Normally, when it comes time for me to review a film, I watch it once or twice to get a good and solid grasp on the thing and then, once I’ve wrapped my head around the varied aspects that have gone into making it (story/writing, acting, directing, and the overall feel of the film), I’m ready to sit down and get to work on the review. With EXCISION, however…things have been very different.
I had three days in which to watch the film, and within that time frame I was like an addict on a binge. After some viewings, as soon as the film would end, I’d start it all over again because while there were certain aspects I grasped immediately, there were others that went to places rarely found in modern cinema; places of dark truth, glimpses into a mind slipping further and further from a world of falsely forced normality, and into a world where blood, sex, and clinical fantasy coalesce into a beautiful escape from the alienated pain of the film’s “real” world.
The film centers on morbid teenager Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord), an outsider with a blood fetish who fantasizes about one day becoming a surgeon. Though at times she attempts to interact with others, she finds it impossible to connect with anyone except, perhaps, her younger sister Grace (Ariel Winter). She is consistently berated by her overbearing mother Phyllis (Traci Lords), who cannot understand Pauline’s odd obsessions and shows obvious favoritism towards Grace, perpetually asking Pauline why she “can’t be more like her sister.” In an attempt to “fix” her, Phyllis goes so far as to force Pauline to attend sessions with the family priest (played straight, if against type, by the always excellent John Waters). Her father, Bob (Roger Bart), is barely present at all as he silently kowtows to Phyllis, instantly denigrated if he dares, even briefly, to speak his mind or disagree. Though briefly escaping her mother’s tyranny, life at school isn’t much better for Pauline. Because of her outsider status and inability to interact in accordance with social norms, she is completely alienated by everyone. She is not only ostracized and ridiculed by her peers, but her teachers Mr. Cooper (Malcolm McDowell) and Mr. Claybaugh (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Principal Campbell (Ray Wise) as well. As things become ever worse for Pauline, she becomes more distant, often spending more and more time within her darkly erotic fantasy world (more on that a little later).
EXCISION portrays a dark side, a very dark side, of modern suburbia, and takes on the classic coming-of-age film, at times recalling films such as the excellent GINGER SNAPS (Pauline even looks a bit like Bridgette Fitzgerald), and DONNIE DARKO. Think PRETTY IN PINK if John Hughes had gone Peckinpah, particularly later Peckinpah, maniacally directing the film with a headband full of acid. The family’s surname is never given, possibly in an attempt to lessen the gap between the viewers and the characters as, for all the shining, advertised examples of family life in America, Pauline’s dysfunctional familial scenario is far more common.
Traci Lords plays the overbearing mother Phyllis admirably, a woman who strongly desires that perfect family she grew up watching on television, or currently reads about in women’s magazines. In one particular scene, she even talks with Pauline about a book she’s reading on better parenting in book club. In any other film, it could’ve been very easy for Phyllis to have been portrayed as a clichéd, two-dimensional character, but writer/director Bates Jr. wisely interjected scenes that allow us to see a more fully realized character with hopes and fears, a woman driven to the edge by the looming death of one daughter, another with whom she feels completely detached, and an unfulfilled, loveless marriage. Her husband, Bob, is barely even relevant to the story at all and if anything serves as a distraction from the story except to serve as perhaps a set piece to provide a sounding board for Phyllis. I would almost go so far as to say his character is completely unnecessary, except to complete Pauline’s nightmarish nuclear family.
Perhaps Pauline’s one saving grace (pun horribly intended…sometimes I can’t help myself) is her sister Grace. Though dissimilar characters, they share a particular bond. Grace is the only person Pauline can talk to and the only real connection she has to any sense of normalcy. Unfortunately, however, Grace is dying, succumbing quickly to the symptoms of cystic fibrosis, unable to even go through some days without being attached to oxygen machines to temporarily stave off the symptoms of her rapidly failing lungs. With the one person she loves in desperate need of a life saving operation, Pauline is at risk of losing the last link she has to the world.
Now, back to those darkly erotic fantasies I mentioned earlier. During masturbatory dream sequences, Pauline loses herself in a world of sex, blood, bandages, and abscission. Within these fantasies, she is no longer plain and homely, but a dark, yet beautiful golden queen of the grotesque. We, the viewer, are given lingering glimpses at amazingly, morbidly, beautiful scenes wherein she reigns over her dead or dying subjects in varying stages of lifeless decay, at one point slithering over their cadaverous, motionless bodies towards her bathtub throne of blood. Once inside, she erotically drenches herself in a crimson robe of blood, an expression of ecstasy upon her face. Her toes curled in orgasmic bliss, we’re back in the real world again as her eyes flutter open, her head slowly turning as she licks her lips in euphoric satisfaction. Upon first witnessing this stunning insight into her fantasy, into the world as she wishes it to be, I had felt, for the first time in a very long while, I had once again experienced art in cinema.
Already incredibly impressed with the writing, acting, directing, and tone of the film, before I had even witnessed the grotesquely fantastical depths of Pauline’s mind, I suddenly found myself completely drawn into this world Richard Bates Jr. had created. EXCISION, the process of cutting out or off, works perfectly as the title to this film. A work permeated with characters both sympathetic and repulsive, Pauline stands starkly out amongst them. Upon first viewing the picture, we are lulled into thinking the title has everything to do with her fetishistic obsession with surgery and blood, but as the film continues, Pauline begins to drift further and further from reality, excising herself from a world and the people in it she no longer has any connection to, spending ever more time within the horrific beauty of her fantasy world until the two rapidly merge into one, resulting in a heart wrenching climax that brings together love and madness in a way I’ve never seen.
I think while it’s fairly obvious I was thoroughly moved by this film, it is difficult to recommend to everyone. Outsiders and horror fans will most assuredly appreciate EXCISION for reasons both similar and diverse, as the dark elements are there in abundance, but it is, at times, an incredibly challenging film to watch. Richard Bates Jr. has written and directed a film that expertly explores the varied depths of the modern family, the detached teenage outsider, and a visual representation of madness both beautiful and frightening to behold. But for those of you brave enough to experience something new and terrifyingly exciting; something that crawls and burrows its way into your mind and stays with you for days and weeks after you’ve seen it, causing you to question what independent horror filmmaking can be, you must watch this film. 4 out of 5 skulls.