What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s staff and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
Richard Bates Jr.’s Excision is a terrific little slice of adolescent nastiness. It tells the story of Pauline, an alienated and alienating teenager (90210’s AnnaLynne McCord, doing a cheeky spin on the kind of anti-makeover, Charlize Theron-in-Monster-type of Oscar-bait performances, hereafter dubbed anti-glam roles) whose erotic fascination with all the messy viscera of the human body manifests in an ongoing series of deeply awkward and uncomfortable scenarios, slowly building to a brutal and blood-spattered climax. Like many a horror film (Lucky McKee’s superb May being the most obvious example), Excision finds fertile ground in the world of young women discovering their awakening sexuality, and the unexpected ways their bodies and minds respond to these new and difficult-to-control feelings.
But whereas May took an intimate and humanistic eye to such material, Bates’ technique is positively Kubrickian in comparison. It’s a distant, external, and downright clinical approach to the story, emphasizing diegetic detachment from the proceedings. And that stylishly cold tactic is what has stuck with me in the years since I first saw it, the gory yet elegant tableaux created by Bates and his cinematographer Itay Gross (what an apropos surname) in Pauline’s elaborate dream sequences achieving a mesmerizing power. I recently revisited the film and found to my delight that its sadistic set pieces retain their beauty. There’s nothing particularly scary about the movie, at least not until the climax, and the reason it’s so effective as a horror film has more to do with the fatalistic nature of the narrative—everything that happens feels inevitable, meaning that even though nothing about it instills fear per se, the very nature of the story’s sense of unalterable destiny makes it feel strangely chilling.
Excision continually returns to the theme of how the nature-versus-nurture debate can be less important than the fact that our impulses, once instilled in us, can’t be changed without serious psychic damage. If anything, it works a little too hard to create sympathy for a girl who finds erotic pleasure in such unsettling daydreams, nudging the viewer in the ribs as if to say, “Man, lucky for you these aren’t your fantasies, huh?” But that’s a small quibble for such a fearless movie, one unafraid to go all-in on a girl both appealing and unlikable, manipulative and clueless at once. It sticks with you not because you’re afraid, but because the imagery in service of such a distinctive character lodges in the mind, like a beautifully bloodied icepick.
Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate, which I rewatched recently, is a mixed bag, but every shot of Denzel Washington in that movie is a little work of art. Of course, he’s one of the most photogenic leading men Hollywood has ever had; few of us will ever look as good from our best angle as Washington does from his worst. But I’d wager that, with the exception of Tony Scott, no director got the camera to love Washington’s face quite like Demme. This is especially true of those dead-center “Demme stares” made famous by The Silence Of The Lambs—very unorthodox close-ups in which we seem to enter a character’s gaze as they look straight into the camera. In The Manchurian Candidate (shot, like Lambs, by Tak Fujimoto, whose signature is a prominent white eye light that really makes the actors’ pupils pop) they are used in a very significant way, in dialogue scenes between Washington’s Maj. Marco and his former Gulf War squadmates Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) and Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright) to suggest the strange emotional closeness of men who’ve been traumatized together in combat. They are always a little creepy, but that’s what makes them feel so intimate. Intimacy should be off-putting; it’s someone else’s private space we’re barging into.
There’s a small but very important difference, too, between the straight-on, full-face close-ups in Lambs and The Manchurian Candidate: the ones in Lambs are shot with longer lenses, which is very flattering, while many of the ones in The Manchurian Candidate are shot with regular and wide-angle lenses at a short distance from the actors’ faces. Of course, this is the sort of technical minutiae that a) probably only interests me and b) the average viewer definitely won’t notice. But all movies are composed of hundreds of things the average viewer doesn’t notice, which add up to something that they do. (And, really, the complex imaging systems that are our brains always note these differences because of contrasts in scale.) Close-ups with a wide-angle lenses feel less clinical, more uncomfortable.The straight-into-lens eye-lines in The Silence Of The Lambs put us into the gaze of evil. In The Manchurian Candidate, it’s psychic space. Honestly, I wish the whole movie were just Marco walking around, looking at things, talking to people.