The disintegration of a troubled teenager
First time writer/director Richard Bates Jr. must have impressed some quality people and their hefty wallets with his short film, Excision back in 2008. Not only does he bring a full-blown production to the screen because of his creative effort, but the cast includes the likes of Traci Lords, Roger Bart, AnnaLynne McCourt, Ariel Winter, “Twin Peaks” alum Ray Wise, and Malcolm McDowell, as a high school teacher, no less – and John Waters as a deadpan minister. Wow.
Okay, that’s all hype. We’ve seen movies bottom out regardless of the phenomenal cast because story is king (or queen), and without a great tale to tell, the rest doesn’t matter (add your James Cameron movie of choice here), because style only trumps substance in the minds of fools who hold special effects or seemingly cool characters without depth over a vibrant yarn. With story as foundation, the actors that inhabit films through their characters can better enhance the narrative, and remarkable special effects will help sell the story as well. Excision has all of these elements in place, and then some.
If you love the “quirky” comedic horror, such as Canada’s Ginger Snaps (2000) and Lucky McKee’s amazing May (2002), you should find Bates’s tale more than satisfying. The story revolves around the enigmatic troubled teen, Pauline, brilliantly portrayed by McCourt, and her dysfunctional family: passive-aggressive and not-all-there dad (Bart), her younger cystic fibrosis plagued sister Grace (Winter), and the matriarch in control, a demanding mother who cherishes Grace among all things (Lords – who will amaze). With Pauline, we can make comparisons to her adult counterpart in the film May, where she doesn’t fit in among the masses. However, where May wants to belong to the world at large, Pauline has other pursuits in mind. What these are can only come from indulging in the film where she has discussions with God while performing rebellious deeds with one thematic prize in mind. Theme is the crux of the tale, which is full of Pauline’s horrific, bloodlust laden fantasies, and her penchant for setting everyone on edge whether at home or in school. Although one would think she’d despise her ill sister, there is a sort of camaraderie there, much like Ginger and Brigitte in Ginger Snaps. Right from the beginning, however, with all its quirkiness and black comedy, we know all too well that something really awful is coming, and Bates does not disappoint thanks to a sub-layer of tension that permeates the movie. Even better, thanks to excellent writing, loaded with exemplary dialogue, we are delivered a full blown upper cut in thematic subtlety (yes, I know that’s a contradiction), that seems to become lost on many viewers who simply despise the movie – see my point about those choosing style over substance.
But the film does have style, and lots of it. Itay Gross, who was the cinematographer for the original short, brought his skills to the feature. Relying on solid lighting to enhance every detail, he did so without creating a perfectly sterile environment, and kept us off-kilter with often straight on wide shots that deceptively mimicked a “wonderful world” of sunshine and warm colors. In the dream sequences, he amped up the lighting to create a heavenly glow in contrast to the blood and carnage, which mirrored the conflict in Pauline’s ravaged mind, leaving us in a beautiful domain with sumptuous people drenched in muck and gore. Yet, when Pauline talks to God, the camera shines down on her in the dark, revealing only her white face and folded hands as she peers upward, which is in direct opposition to her visions of fashionable blood and butchery. Once again, the disconnect in Pauline’s mind is made clear through exceptional imagery. Pauline peers up from the darkness because she sees her life as Hell, an abyss, while the blood-soaked images of beautiful and alluring people are set against a clean, white, virginal world. Gross’s achievement further enhanced Armen Ra’s production design, which again mislead us with seemingly generic venues both innocuous and comfortable, and as inviting as the gingerbread house in the old Hansel and Gretel story or a “Brady Bunch” episode. Then again, isn’t this why Bates deceived us with the comedy element? In this regard, he’s reminiscent of Tarantino who misdirects us with fun and games until someone is brutally killed (think of the opening “royale with cheese” scene in Pulp Fiction before the carnage), as if he had coaxed us into his realm with candy before bludgeoning us with a hammer. As for the rest of the behind-the-scenes crew, no one missed a beat and collectively delivered one extremely unsettling film.
It’s not hard for one to see that Pauline has much in common with Carol (Catherine Deneuve) from Polanski’s dramatic horror Repulsion (UK, 1965). Like May and Carol, Pauline is in crisis, though unlike the others, she knows it, and like the others, does her best to bend reality to her crazed will. All of these women are creators by nature, yet in order to right the perceived wrongs done to them, they become “the destructor” to bring about change and the inner growth they think will lead to solace, even at the highest of prices. One can easily make comparison to goddesses like Kali, who is both creator and destructor, but these women lack the wisdom of a deity due to the over-whelming pressure of their human frailties. Although we see May and Carol on their own, eighteen-year-old Pauline cannot escape the family unit. At least her mother, anyway, who lays down the law (or tries to) while Pauline fights back with wit and a bit of lunacy to maintain a sense of autonomy.
Don’t think this is some cliché-ridden tale with the typical family dynamics we’ve come to loathe from other movies, or the stock bullies one finds at Hollywood movie high schools. Bates constantly adds little touches to keep things askew, and delivers the best and worst of each character in subdued ways. Like Paul Solet’s completely under-appreciated Grace (2009), it’s hard to find “evil” in a character when they are simply doing what they think is right – only to have some major realizations come calling by film’s end.
Pauline’s journey is an intriguing and disturbing venture sure to connect with many, while others may not grasp the nuances of Bates’s artistry and guile. I certainly hope to indulge in more of Bates and his work – much sooner than later – for Excision is the best horror I’ve seen in quite some time. The film’s certainly worthy of a rental, though it should find a home in every horror fan’s personal collection. Did I mention John Waters as a minister?
4.5 out of 5 stars