Horror thrives on uncertainty. The fear, tension, and general unease that spouts from an overwhelming sense of uncertainty is what horror is fueled by. In life, there is perhaps no greater source of uncertainty, and the subsequent fear and unease that follows, than a pubescent, teenage girl. In Excision, the feature length version of a 2008 short film of the same title, Richard Bates Jr. seems intent on exploring both the horror of female adolescence and the horror of, you know, bloody things. Separately, both elements are effective and darkly humorous, but when Bates manages to slam both elements into the same cinematic frame, the result is disturbing, perplexing and, most of all, unforgettable.
Excision follows Pauline(AnnaLynne McCord), an eighteen year-old girl who seems intent on being her own distinct, and odd, person, all while hoping desperately for some kind of acceptance. So, you know, it’s about being a teenager. Granted, Pauline’s breed of individual oddness is particularly odd, including an unnatural fondness for blood and sharp objects, but in the end she just like any other teenager. And really, that’s what makes Excision so interesting. For the majority of the film, Pauline is loveably sympathetic. Her strange preoccupations aside, she is an outsider that wants approval, approval from peers, from her teachers, and most of all her parents. The audience can understand and sympathize with this if nothing else. The path that Pauline heads down, though, in search of that approval is dark, comic, and horrific. What starts with sympathy turns to shock and eventually to fear.
A large part of this journey falls on the shoulders of AnnaLynne McCord. Her performance as Pauline has to maneuver a razor-sharp edge of sympathy and fear. A tendency here, an inflection there and Pauline could veer off the track into straight monster territory. Luckily for Excision, McCord is more than up for the task. Her performance is in that “transformative” category that the awards season seems to love. Her mannerisms, posture, and even voice are changed to the degree that you would be forgiven for not recognizing the actress. More importantly, though, these changes allow the character of Pauline, and Excision in general, to successfully navigate that narrow ledge of creepy and lovable.
When Excision is reduced to its basest parts, it is that balance between creepiness and lovability that powers the film forward. Pauline is undeniably creepy, but she also has a deep love for her sister and an equally deep love/hate relationship with her parents. This emotional entanglement powers the majority, if not all, of Pauline’s decisions in the movie. As skewed and illogical as those decisions may be, they are nonetheless made from a place of genuine familial bonds.
And then there is the blood. Blood is a not so subtle undercurrent of Excision. From the requisite horror gore to the simple menstruation of Pauline, it is clear that Pauline’s separation from her peers and family can be reduced to blood. Bates’ script seems to equate all blood as equal. A tampon and a severed head are on the same playing field in Pauline’s world. So, while her fantasies of blood play may be the logical key to Pauline’s separation from the “normal” world, Excision and, by extension, Pauline, rolls her basest femininity into that lump of teenage exile. Her menstruation plays a large part in Pauline’s world, and the disgust shown to it by the people around her is more than a little analogous to her deeper, and darker, blood fantasies.
The combination of the horrors in Pauline’s mind with the general disgust a teenage girl may feel towards her newly pubescent body is what makes Excision such an extraordinary little film. By running the narrative of a bonafide sociopath parallel to a coming of age story, Bates manages to make a successfully introspective movie about what is truly horrific, and who defines what that is. In another story, Pauline could be a simple, awkward girl on her way to becoming a surgeon. In Excision, however, we find a portrayal of a disturbed and sweetly damaged teen who sets down a dark path in the name of individualism and acceptance.