The opening scene of Excision is one of the most unsettling things I’ve seen in recent years: in a florescent lit blue room sit two images of lead actress Annalynne McCord, both identical aside from the fact that one is beaten to a bloody pulp. As she sits there spitting blood and starts convulsing, her counterpart watches, becoming more and more aroused, until they both reach fever pitch and our lead character, the disturbed and confused Pauline, wakes up. As we return to this dream room again and again throughout the film, the images become more and more shocking, but they’re not meant to be nightmares: Excision is, above all, a portrait of a mind that is far more broken than the people around it realise, and these are her sex dreams.
Played with intense awkwardness by AnnaLynne McCord, Pauline is a mess of contradictions and impulses wrapped up in the body of a teenage girl going through one bitch of a puberty. Her domineering mother (a fantastic Traci Lords) is insisting she goes to cotillion; her father is passive to the point of barely existing; they’re forcing her to go to counseling sessions with their priest who is telling her she’s going to hell; and her sister, who she loves, has Cystic Fibrosis and is slowly becoming more and more ill. On top of this, her obsession with bodily functions – blood, germs and STDs and the like – are alienating her from people at school, and her career plans to become a surgeon are starting to take on a more sinister edge.
In case you couldn’t tell from that synopsis, Excision is a bit of a mess. It veers wildly in tone from scene to scene, has a hyperreal brightness to it that makes scenes that should be delicate and sensitive seem garish and crass, and the aforementioned dream sequences that punctuate the film seem to exist for no reason other than to provoke. At its best though, all these elements work quite miraculously in the films favour, and for one simple reason – writer/director Richard Bates, Jr. cares deeply about the story he’s telling. Pauline is sick, fucked-up, and possibly beyond saving, but Bates loves her anyway, and he instils every scene, and particularly those with her family, with an emotion that’s rare in such films.
The genuine feeling in the family scenes is aback-taking – one scene in which her mother tells her sister that one of her best friends has died of the disease that will eventually kill her completely floored me. Bates wields emotion like a blunt weapon, but when it does hit, it’s hard and ugly, and extremely effective. Pauline wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as she is if she was a typical moody teenager who hated her family and needlessly provoked people at school and had gross skin – instead, her deep love for her sister and her desperate need for her mother’s approval are her main motivators.
That’s not to say it’s a delicately drawn family drama disguised as a horror movie. Nothing is delicate here, and more tender moments wrestle for screen time with scenes of dead pigeon surgery, ipecac chugging, and John Waters, Ray Wise, and Malcolm McDowell camping it up. In both look at feel, it reminds me of Lucky McKee’s underrated 2001 horror May, which told a story about a lonely girl so obsessed with finding a friend that she decided to make one. It was a sad, downbeat sort of horror film, but continually interrupted its pathos with Anna Faris being a hilarious lesbian horndog. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Both those films find a groove in never quite finding a groove, and both those films ask you to care about a character who at first seems deeply unlikeable. It won’t be for many, but those who can stomach it might find something to love buried amongst the gore.