Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Excision (RIchard Bates Jr, 2012)

It's no surprise that so many horror films feature adolescents and that they are the audience the films are meant for. Unless you're the most fortunate of individuals, the kind who won all of the lotteries of fate, granted the genetic ticket to have grown into someone that matches societies description of physical beauty, a materially comfortable and secure home, a relatively well adjusted family, and the confidence that comes with all of that, chances are adolescence is not going to be an easy, simple time in your life that doesn't involve stress and confusion that you're barely capable of handling.

Horror films are a great outlet for that stress and tension, and many of them are created by people who understand that experience from a very personal standpoint. The best of these kinds of films distill that combination of sheer terror, youthful energy, and the hope that somewhere, somehow the confidence and capability the world seems to value are going to available. In the case of horror films, they usually aren't available to the characters until after some horrible, terrifying experience has threatened their physical safety, their immortal souls or something else your average teenager finds of great value. It's not a mistake that for decades, horror films were based on a lone survivor having watched their entire circle of friends unceremoniously massacred by a maniac wielding a variety of different weapons. It represented both the connection to community that many teenagers experience and fear losing and the degree of competition in that community. As budding adults, teenagers and adolescents are basically new converts to the adult experience. They haven't quite gotten there and don't have the acceptance that an adult does though. As with any other new convert in any other subset or society, they're also the one's who are going to most forcefully enforce group norms as part of the insecure need to feel they belong and deserve their place, and in doing so, they end up creating a hyper competitiveness, which comes out in horror films as the inevitable whittling down of the community or competitors to one lone survivor, who has survived because of some combination of traits they've drawn on either purposely or by chance, that the others lacked.

Excision explores many of those same ideas from a perspective that couldn't be more different from your standard horror film. After seeing it to the end, few people would argue that this isn't a horror film, but it doesn't deal with it's characters or it's content in the way audiences generally expect a horror film with an adolescent as the central character to deal with them. It's instead presenting a view of that experience and the kind of hyper competitiveness that comes with it from the perspective of someone who is more or less experiencing it from the outside and not as a member of a small community of friends.

Annalynne McCord breaks out of the sexpot typecast she's been trapped in as Pauline, an eighteen year old girl with dreams of becoming a surgeon and a rather unusual fascination with the body as a biological mechanism. Her social skills are abysmal, not because she doesn't understand them social mores and taboos, but because she rejects them. The escape she envisions from the hell of adolescence isn't in winning the competition, it's in not competing and reaching a higher level of achievement. The expectations of a world she rejects are being constantly thrust upon her by a domineering mother who has fully accepted those expectations, and that acceptance and obsessive enforcement of them is what has created the person that Pauline is. All of that culminates in the films ending, which isn't a complete shocker because writer/director Richard Bates Jr. definitely tips his hand a bit earlier in the film, but it's still fun getting there, and it's still effective in the way it's played both on the visual level and in McCord's performance. It's going to shock most people, but Traci Lords puts in a really fun performance as Pauline's mother, also escaping the sexpot typecast that she's been trapped in for decades and getting a chance to prove that there just might be a good actress beyond the novelty of having a former porn star in your film.

McCord, as the films lead, gives a performance that is best characterized as interesting. There are two competing schools of thought when it comes to acting in film. One is that it should be as real as possible. It should make the audience feel or believe that they are seeing reality unfold before them in the unscripted way that real life does. The other school of thought is that it should be interesting. This is to say that it doesn't necessarily have to be something that is completely rooted in the kind of reality that audiences experience, because they experience that reality daily and they're looking for something different in film, something that's going to be more interesting than reality and that is going to hold their attention because it's unexpected. McCord's performance here definitely falls into the second category, and in line with that school of thought, it is a good performance. It may not ring as "real," but it's definitely interesting, true to the script and character as it's written that makes for a character on screen that the audience is going to be hard pressed not to give their undivided attention to because she is so unpredictable in many ways. I can only imagine that this was an incredibly fun character to play, and given the roles she's been stuck in before, there's some real courage to taking this character and running with it to the degree she does. It's fun to watch, that's for certain.

There are a number of great cameos in the film as well. A few of the luminaries of horror and cult films past make appearances in unexpected roles. I don't really want to spoil the best of them because some of the fun of the film is seeing them show up playing those characters. Richard Bates deserves credit for having the courage to reach out to those folks as a first time director and good for them for saying yes to appear in a production that was probably more akin to the films they started out in than the ones available to them today.

One aspect of the film that needs to be brought up because of just how well it works and how well it's designed and constructed are the dream sequences that appear in the film. Instead of going with the very tired and trite variety of dream sequence which employs a disjointed narrative, a fuzzy filter on the lens or in post production and symbolic imagery, Excision goes in the other direction. They are presented in a striking clarity and are designed with more the sensibility of pop art than Salvador Dali. The colors are intensely bright, strikingly beautiful and jump off the screen. Everything is presented a highly stylized way that also conveys a kind of intensity, severity and urgency that is one of the hallmarks of adolescence. I imagine that because they are so different from the norm when it comes to portraying dreams on film, that there will be many people who just won't accept them. I found them visually fascinating and sumptuous. I'd be interested to see Bates make an entire film with as stylized an aesthetic because of just how well he pulls those short scenes off.

The rest of the film has an unusual strategy for it's cinematography as well. There is virtually no camera movement. If it could be avoided it was. All of the dialog scenes are static shots of the actors speaking to one and other, cut to give emphasis where it's necessary. That's something that is normally suggested against, but it works well here, probably because at this point, audiences expect there to be a more dynamic kind of cinematography and that amount of stillness actually ends up adding to the sense of tension and unease in the scenes.

Excision shares a spiritual kinship with May, a film I flat out love and the praises for which I can't sing loudly or often enough. The primary difference being that May was a character that was only peripherally aware of and able to have any control over the aspects of her personality which were responsible for her being an outcast and Pauline, as a character, has much more of a sense of agency to her. I can't say that Excision works as well as May did because they're also different in tone. Excision revels in Pauline's outsider status a bit, where it was definitely not something either the character or the film May reveled in at all. Both of them deal pretty directly with the kind of weight and pressure that the expectations of society place on young women though, and they're interesting in that way, while also being successful entries into the horror genre that did a whole lot with very limited resources. To that end, if you're looking for an interesting, slightly unusual little horror film that's almost as much character study as anything else, this is for you. If you're only really interested in what's been passing for mass audience horror in the last five years, this probably isn't going to satisfy you at all. It's too cerebral for most of the gore hounds, and not quite talky or gimmicky enough for a lot of the current indie "art" crowd, so it's definitely had it's work cut out for it in finding the right audience.

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