For his first feature, Excision, writer and director Richard Bates, Jr. has assembled quite an impressive cast: Malcolm McDowell, John Waters, Traci Lords, Ray Wise, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Marlee Matlin. Visually, the film is stunning, with pristine, static, centered shots and vivid colors. Excision‘s plot—a disturbed, misanthropic high school student named Pauline dreams (literally) of being a surgeon but her parents just don’t understand–doesn’t sound unique when boiled down to its most basic elements, but Bates manages to create a film that is genuinely disturbing.
Blood plays a crucial role in Excision, too. There is a whole lot of it. Yet it’s not a horror film, despite being well received by a lot of horror film websites and blogs, which puts it into that difficult position of being a genre film that doesn’t fit easily into any genre.
At times, this can be problematic. Excision feels like it wants to be a pitch black comedy or a parody of the suburban dream, but it’s not actually funny. Granted, some of Pauline’s quirks and attempts to navigate her unwelcoming environment at home and school are humorous, but not in a laugh out loud way. The roles of McDowell, Waters, Lords, and Wise in this context could seem like stunt casting, except for the fact that they’re all really good, particularly AnnaLynne McCord as Pauline and Traci Lords as Pauline’s mother Phyllis, whose character arc might represent the best work she’s ever done.
Such scenes of high school and domestic life alternate with Pauline’s dream sequences. Symmetrical, repeated scenes of domesticity—the family at the dinner table, mom driving Pauline home from school, Pauline praying, studying, and spending time with her sister—evoke a mind-numbing state of stasis, from which Pauline’s dreams are her only escape. The contrast is intentional and succeeds at making viewers extremely uncomfortable. Pauline’s dreams reflect how her desires eventually shape her reality; they are grotesque and unsettling in a very Cronenbergian manner, but not one that feels like a rip-off.
Where Excision falters is in its pacing. Pauline is already so demented that when things start to head down a path from which there is no turning back, the transformation feels anti-climactic. There is a marked lack of suspense, which is replaced by sluggishness, causing the movie to feel overlong when it’s actually only 81 minutes. Since it began as a short, the knee-jerk reaction would be to say that Bates didn’t have enough ideas to fill up an entire feature, but that’s not the case. If anything, Bates has many good ideas, but not enough movie to give them all the attention they deserve.
As Pauline, McCord is repugnant and pathetic, which is probably exactly what Bates and McCord intended. In most movies about awkward teenaged girls, they look like models who aren’t good at being ugly. Even though we sympathize with Pauline because a lot of what she says and does makes perfect sense, she’s also totally creepy and weird and obsessed with blood to an unhealthy, dangerous degree. What’s most surprising is that McCord is known for her role on the current iteration of 90210; as Pauline, she is utterly unrecognizable.
The final sequence of Excision is definitely a triumph. Bates creates palpable pathos as well as layers of emotion and ambiguity that will definitely keep viewers thinking. Excellent performances and stunning visuals also prevent Excision from being a movie that you can just forget about the next day. It’s not a masterpiece, but it shows that Bates is someone we should definitely keep watching.
Excision was released on Blu-Ray on October 16 from Anchor Bay. The only special feature is a commentary track with Bates and McCord. It’s less of a commentary on the movie as it plays out and more of a conversation. Still, it’s worth listening to because of some intriguing personal stories they share and a lot of details on the production, which prove Excision to be a labor of love that almost didn’t happen.