Excision is a brilliant exercise in how to perfectly execute a horror film/character study. It is a film of many riches and revelations; a film that surprises, shocks, and entertains. You will be terrorized and feel extremely uncomfortable and in certain scenes, you will laugh at the well placed, and much needed, dark humor. This film is a welcome antidote to the tired and by-the-numbers horror films of late.
Directed with supreme originality, while still tipping his hat to some of his favorite filmmakers, by Richard Bates Jr., Excision tells the bizarre story of Pauline, a deeply disturbed high school outcast who exhibits truly dark and bizarre behavior. Pauline’s dream is to go to medical school and become a surgeon. These dreams are dismissed completely by her emotionally absent father and obsessively controlling and overly religious mother.
Pauline has a little sister, the cleverly named Grace, who suffers from Cystic Fibrosis. She promises that she can save Grace by learning to be a great surgeon. Creepily she says she could do the lifesaving procedure now if need be, explaining that she “pulled the lung out of a dead bird one time so I think I’ve got this down.” For Pauline, surgery, unconscious patients, and extreme blood are the stuff of obsession and thoughts that orgasmic dreams and masturbatory fantasies are made of.
The film follows Pauline, who is in almost every scene, as she navigates being on the outskirts of high school while trying to lose her virginity, feel loved or at least listened to by her parents, and, while making no moves in the proper direction, get into medical school. Her scenes are wonderfully written and give the character a sad, twisted, narrative.
Pauline is played by Anna Lynn McCord and the performance is the announcement of a serious actress. McCord is a beautiful woman but, to play Pauline, is buried under unwashed hair and acne. Her character’s clothes are rumpled and plain and her emotions, or lack thereof, are given by a monotone way of speaking to the world and a distant gaze that says “fuck you” to whomever is speaking to her. The only good vibes she lets off is when she is with her little sister, played by Ariel Winter of television’s Modern Family. At once their scenes are quiet and sweet and are injected with an underlying sadness due to the fact that her sister is in danger of dying.
In the sequence where Pauline finds a guy to help her lose her virginity, Pauline is cold to him about the whole thing, and then afterwards tries to have a regular conversation while being, once again, spurned is heartbreaking to watch and played to perfection by McCord.
The rest of the cast is peppered with interesting choices from some great actors. Malcolm McDowell plays her teacher who has no patience for her eccentricities and attitude. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin is Pauline’s guidance counselor who sees that she has a less than perfect home life. The great John Waters, cast as a priest (!) who tries to set her on the right path but concedes to give up as she rejects everything he and the church represent.
Pauline’s parents, one of the reasons she is introverted and emotionally rebellious are cast perfectly and lead to one of the film’s greatest revelations. The father is played by the fine character actor Roger Bart, recently on Broadway in Young Frankenstein. He plays it as someone who has all but has given up on being a good husband and father. His character seems to be trying to simply get through the day without confrontation.
Now for the true revelation, Traci Lords can act! We are all well aware of Ms. Lord’s background and when she made the transition to mainstream film, it is not as if she sought out Oscar caliber work. Here she is marvelous. As the mother she is overly harsh, religious to a fault, and brutally honest as she declares that she has no more love for Pauline. Lord’s performance is the best one in the film. She uses her face to express a myriad of emotion. Her character wears her stern demeanor as a mask that hides her defeat as a mother. She knows she has failed her daughter but she is at a loss as Pauline seems too far out of her reach. Traci Lords gives a great performance.
On the surface the film could be seen as a twisted human drama centering on a supremely dysfunctional family. However, snaking through the proceedings is a much darker horror that rises to the top during a terrifying final act.
Pauline’s violently sexual dreams are fascinatingly directed. They are a mixture of David Lynch and Fellini. Those scenes are bloody, sexy, grotesque, and truly twisted.
The relationship between Pauline and her mother is wonderfully written and performed and their scenes are the best in the film. Their moments of mother/daughter battle are so well done they can be compared to the scenes between Piper Laurie and Sissy Spaceck in Brian DePalma classic Carrie.
The final moments will, at once, shock you, frighten you, and break your heart.
Director Bates Jr. has crafted a marvelous film. We feel its drama and sadness and we cower at its terror. I look forward to his next film and hope he doesn’t fall into the “sophomore slump”.
Excision is highly original, supremely interesting, and one of the best films of 2012.