The poster is gorgeous. The trailer is visually stunning. But while EXCISION features some terrific performances and above average production values, the screenplay is essentially a first draft. That’s a shame because the talent involved (including the writer/director) is spectacular.
EXCISION follows Pauline, a demented high school student who lures a jock classmate into taking her virginity. What follows is a meandering plot where Pauline acts out in varying degrees of anti-social behavior towards her mother, priest, and classmates before losing her mind. (SPOILER AHEAD!) She finally kills a neighbor girl to give her ill younger sister a lung transplant in the garage. Presumably, her sister is dead. Mom walks in on the two dead bodies and the carnage. The end.
This isn’t a horror movie. A horror movie requires a hero to face off against a monster (human killer, animal, supernatural or some combo of the above) with survival at stake, preferably in a contained pressure cooker setting. Another option in horror is to show our hero’s decline, watching her becoming a monster.
Pauline is already a monster at the start. The film opens on a dream where she has an orgasm from getting sprayed with blood. In reality, she’s ugly, an outcast, and completely unconcerned with what anyone thinks of her. She asks her sex-ed teacher “can you get an STD by having sex with a dead person?” It’s not clear if she’s saying this to be provocative or because she’s actually interested in the answer. Either way, Pauline doesn’t care how she comes across to her classmates, teachers, or parents. Soon, we’ll see Pauline offer her virginity to jock character Adam right in front of his friends. Her confidence is rabid.
Late in the movie, Pauline’s mother suggests that Pauline has lost her mind, that she needs to be locked up and “is impossible to love.” Pauline overhears this and cries, but the moment lacks dramatic impact because she’s never been shown to care what anyone thinks, other than flashes of affection towards her father and sister. Mom also mentions that Pauline’s friends have fallen away. Why don’t we see this? Why didn’t we meet Pauline before she became grotesque?
One way to establish a character like Pauline is to introduce her as normal (or normalized), show her with friends, and display how she scares them off through increasingly bizarre actions that escalate into violence. The idea here is that the woman she is becoming doesn’t fit into the neat boxes and categories of society, alienating her from her friends and the community. Without the initial establishment of Pauline as a real person with hopes and dreams, it’s impossible to care as she slips into madness. This also removes the potential to engage in the most devious element of the horror genre, which is implicating the viewer/audience in the perpetration of violence by having us secretly applaud her fearless embrace of the forbidden.
Pauline’s character construction is lacking in other areas. Based on her dreams and dialogue, it’s not clear what her sexual proclivities are or when they started emerging. She tells her math teacher that she wants to be a surgeon. Her sex dreams take place in what looks like an operating room. Yet she’s also later shown there bathing in a tub of blood and crawling over disembodied corpses. While losing her virginity, she fantasizes about her sex partner bleeding to death. It’s clear enough she’s into necrophilia, but does she also get a charge from killing? That’s a really important distinction! Is she interested in becoming a surgeon or does she just have a fetish for gore? Without knowing what our hero truly wants and needs (no matter how revolting it is), we’ll never connect with or root for her.
Whatever she’s into, this script never depicts Pauline examining her own feelings about these bizarre desires. Just as she offered her virginity to Adam in front of his friends without worry of humiliating rejection, Pauline seems right at home with her fucked up fantasies. She doesn’t deny them, she doesn’t hide from them, she doesn’t experience one iota of shame or worry about going to sleep where she’s forced to confront them. That is antithetical to the horror genre, a central theme of which focuses on the ugly consequences of sexual repression. (CONTINUED BELOW)
In a better version of this movie, we’d watch Pauline be horrified at these new feelings, we’d have a scene where she tries to figure out what’s going on in her head or specifically research the desires she’s just been introduced to. An advanced version of Pauline would eventually harness her power and become truly dangerous once she stops fighting and embraces her differentness. If we’re tracking her path into madness then she should initially be pretty in real life, gross in the dreams, and watch the clear regression/progression of each as the story unfolds, bringing us to where the movie ends up anyway, with Pauline looking like a supermodel in her dreams and an unhinged monster in reality.
As a counterpoint, let’s take a look CARRIE, the definitive text of female teen horror. Carrie is the product of a repressive, mentally ill mother. When gets her period, she thinks she’s dying and is mocked by her classmates. Carrie’s telekinesis emerges at this point. This is the traditional linking of sexual maturity and power.
Here’s why we like Carrie—She starts out shy and overlooked (so ignored her gym teacher initially calls her “Cassie”) but throughout the story she learns to stand up for herself and gains self confidence. We root for her success as Carrie emerges from her shell and is poised to become an adult blessed with awesome supernatural capabilities. So when her classmates rig the vote to elect her prom queen, it is another step towards social acceptance in her mind. This makes their prank (showering Carrie in a bucket of pig’s blood) all the more infuriating. In humiliation, Carrie’s telekinetic powers are furiously unleashed and everyone, including the innocent, die violently. Her mother executes Carrie, but there’s no reason to believe society would have been any more forgiving. This is tragedy. We’ve watched Carrie go from being an awkward, ugly duckling to a powerful woman, a queen, only to have it all ripped away.
In contrast, EXCISION seems dedicated to gross out moments. We see Pauline sniffing her own tampon to enjoy the smell of blood, forcing a kiss on a dance partner after he mentions the cold sore on her lip, and repeatedly fantasizing about having sex with buckets of blood pouring out of her partners. She bathes in a tub of blood. At one point, Pauline dreams of an abortion where she squats, pushes out a fetus, then feeds it into an incinerator. This stuff is memorably fucked up and that’s great!
But all of that stuff needs to be married to a plot that features a clear goal for Pauline to pursue. A more advanced script would put Pauline on a course to achieving this goal. We’d share her frustration at each complication and obstacle that pops-up along the way. We’d compound these obstacles in every singe scene, which is how tension is created. Plus, we’d admire Pauline more each time she engages in clever problem solving to overcome complications and continue on her warpath.
So the script makes some counter-intuitive decisions when it comes to setting up the hero, the establishment of her sexuality is too ambiguous, and she’s lacking a clear cut goal. What the movie does have are some incredibly funny moments as well as a talented cast. Traci Lords’ performance as Pauline’s horrified mother is memorable and Anna-Lynn McCord who usually plays femme-fatale vixens is great playing against type as Pauline. And the technical bravado of the dream sequences are memorable in the vein of Matthew Barney’s THE CREMASTER CYCLE or early Mark Romanek stuff. There are so many stunning images and wonderfully repellent ideas unfolding on screen that there’s more than enough moments to pack a trailer that had me scrambling to immediately rent it through iTunes.
But the screenplay of EXCISION is essentially is a first draft—it establishes the hero, creates the universe and supporting cast, shoehorns in the “Ideas of Value” and figures out where everything needs to end up. The writer here did his job. Whoever was responsible for providing notes and helping him take the material to the next level or at the very least, make more sense of it, failed to deliver (or they did and their notes were ignored). If I had read this as a spec, I’d think “Damn, whoever gets to work with this guy is incredibly lucky. Imagination this demented is rare and the notes are elementary.” In either case, EXCISION is admirable for its technical polish and performances, but the script remains at square one–Full of potential but undeveloped.
Some smaller issues in the film — It’s not clear why the popular guy Adam sleeps with Pauline—He’s got a pretty girlfriend and according to her dialogue they’re sexually active. The script could have given him dialogue explaining his motivation here. Is there something about her he finds attractive or exciting that isn’t satisfied by his conventionally beautiful girlfriend?
Pauline’s offer to have Adam take her virginity is oddly staged. She comes up to him, says “I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced, I’m Pauline” and then shakes his hand. Forget that she offers up her virginity in front of his friends when it would make more sense to do it while he’s alone. We just saw Pauline and Adam are in the same sex-ed class. They’re not freshman—Adam drives. So they’ve likely been schoolmates for years. Why would they need a formal introduction? This mirrors the later confusing scene where Pauline and her sister “meet” the jump-roping girl living across the street. The story never suggests Pauline’s family is new to the community—How are these characters not already familiar with each other?