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Excision (Blu-ray / DVD)

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Excision (Blu-ray / DVD)Starring AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, Roger Bart, Ariel Winter, Jeremy Sumpter, Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise, Marlee Matlin, John Waters

Directed by Richard Bates, Jr.

Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment

Related Story: Everything About Excision


Who here hasn’t felt like an outsider from time to time? Separate from society, wishing and dreaming for another life where we find ourselves accepted for what we already are, rather than homogenizing ourselves to fit in with the rest of the herd. Genre cinema has often used misfits as protagonists, likely because a considerable portion of their audiences will relate to them. The latest offering of this type is Excision, a well-crafted if frustrating new feature from first-time writer/director Richard Bates, Jr.

Excision follows Pauline (McCord), a troubled young teen who daydreams of becoming a surgeon. And by daydreams, I mean she has candy-colored scalpel-and-blood-filled fantasies that’d make Argento blush. Pauline’s home life isn’t the greatest, what with her controlling mother Phyllis (Lords), emasculated father Bob (Bart), and unwell sister Grace (Winter), who’s afflicted with Cystic Fibrosis. Her time at school isn’t much better, as she’s typically looked down upon, sneered at, and even bullied.

One can understand why Pauline feels the need to escape reality through her dreams. She is a curious character though, in that she seems to instigate some of the problems that hold her down. She is quick to say something awkward in any situation, and can be downright rude to her peers before being attacked herself. She is also openly defiant to her parents from time to time, keeping a constant friction between she and her mother. Ultimately, though, Pauline’s hidden need for love and affection will ensure that her real life and dreamlife will eventually collide, in a climax that is as devastating as it is inevitable.

Excision, it should be noted, is an very well-made film, with beautiful photography, great acting, and some truly distressing imagery. It’s unfortunate then, that it is let down by its script. While the dialogue is often wickedly witty (reminding this viewer more than once of Heathers, high praise from me), the storytelling is incredibly episodic and rather aimless throughout. Rather than watching a single story unfold, it feels like the movie is made up of nothing more than tiny vignettes that have been strung together to form an almost feature-length tale. When mention of the film’s genesis as a short film was made during the provided audio commentary, it did not surprise. For all that is done well in the film, it never quite gels. And, as a result, it never becomes fully engrossing.

Still, there is plenty to praise here. As mentioned, the film looks wonderful, with distinct visual traits separating Pauline’s banal suburban existence from her more vivid, beautifully grisly dream life. According to Bates, the budget was quite low, but you’d never think of this production as one that was wanting for anything it needed. From the production design to the cinematography, it’s a wonderfully crafted film.

And those performances! Anna Lynne McCord, an actress I was unfamiliar with and who is apparently a “90210” reboot alum, is remarkable in the title role. Between the two of them, director Bates and McCord have created one of the more original characters to grace the genre in some time. Pauline could’ve easily been a poor misunderstood wretch in the Carrie vein, or a kickass rebel not unlike the Fitzgerald sisters from Ginger Snaps. Instead, Pauline manages to be intermittently sympathetic and infuriating, and truly unhinged as well. Undoubtedly Bates’ writing accounts for a good deal of that, but it’s McCord who is able to keep Pauline fully human and believable, rather than portraying her as a kooky oddball. And while McCord is a bombshell in real life, she’s able to play the willfully unattractive Pauline in a genuine way – inhabiting the character fully instead of simply “playing ugly” with makeup and dowdy clothing. I look forward to seeing more performances from her in the future.

Also worth noting is Traci Lords’ work in this film as well. She puts in great work as Phyllis, playing a domineering mother and wife who really just wants the best for her family. One imagines it might’ve been easy to simply portray the character as a stereotypical nagging bitch, but again the choice is made to create a realistic character, as opposed to a simple archetype. While we don’t always sympathize with her character’s actions, Lords does a fine job of making us understand the whys with each of Phyllis’ choices. And, while I won’t get spoilery, I will say that the final moment of the film between Lords and McCord is utterly chilling. The last seconds of each actress’ performance are heartbreaking and horrifying, in equal measure.

Roger Bart makes another welcome appearance to the genre as Pauline’s dad and Phyllis’ long-suffering husband. While he hardly gets the lion’s share of screen time, he is wonderful whenever his character appears. Also appearing in what are essentially extended cameos are Malcolm McDowell, Marlee Matlin, Ray Wise and John Waters. Kudos to Bates for wrangling these actors onto the project without it seeming like stunt casting, as each actor has a chance to give a real performance (as opposed to simply putting in an appearance for a quick paycheck).

The film comes to Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Anchor Bay, and boasts a sharp image and clear sound. Sadly, the only bonus feature included is an audio commentary with Bates and McCord. Fortunately, the talk between the two is a good one, as they spill plenty of fun behind-the-scenes anecdotes and detail the trials and tribulations of putting this low-budget, high-concept affair together. It’s well worth a listen for budding filmmakers, especially for an admission Bates gives concerning his debut feature: the young director points out that he used to be somewhat paranoid of dying (whether it be by simply driving down the street, or what have you), simply because he hadn’t yet had the chance to make a film. With that demon now exorcised, apparently Bates is far more carefree with his life. This should be a fairly relatable story to anyone wishing to make movies.

Ultimately, while I can’t quite give Excision a thumbs up, I will say that it’s still worth a look for the performances and filmmaking alone. And though the story isn’t as involving or compelling as one would hope, at least it’s original, and that’s worth something. Here’s hoping Mr. Bates has a stronger script in hand the next time he steps behind the camera, as I wish him well and look forward to the next tale he sees fit to direct.

Special Features

  • Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Richard Bates, Jr. and Actor AnnaLynne McCord

    Film:

    2 1/2 out of 5

    Special Features:

    1 out of 5

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    The Crucifixion Review – Should’ve Left This One Nailed to the Cross

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    Starring Sophie Cookson, Corneliu Ulici, Ada Lupu

    Directed by Xavier Gens


    Claiming to be inspired by actual events, director Xavier Gens’ The Crucifixion forgoes the affecting shocks and awes, and instead beats its audience into the ground with a laundry-list of ho-hum dialogue and lesser-than-stellar instances…forget the priest, I need a friggin’ Red Bull.

    A 2005 case is spotlighted, and it revolves around a psychotically damaged woman of the cloth (nun for all you laymen) who priests believed was inhabited by ol’ Satan himself. With one rogue priest in command who firmly believed that this was the work of something satanic, the nun was subject to a horrific exorcism in which she was chained to a cross and basically left to die, which ultimately resulted in the priest being stripped of his collar and rosary…how tragic. Enter an overzealous New York reporter (Cookson) who is intently focused upon traveling to Romania to get the scoop on the botched undertaking. After her arrival, the only point of view that seems to keep sticking with interviewees is that the man who sat close to the lord killed a helpless, innocent and stricken woman, that is until she meets up with another nun and a village priest – and their claims are of something much more sinister.

    From there, the battle between good and evil rages…well, let me rephrase that: it doesn’t exactly “rage” – instead, it simmers but never boils. Unfortunately for those who came looking for some serious Father Karras action will more than likely be disappointed. The performances border on labored with cursory characters, and outside of some beautiful cinematography, this one failed to chew out of its five-point restraints.

    I’d normally prattle on and on about this and that, just to keep my word limit at a bit of a stretch, but with this particular presentation, there just isn’t much to bore you all with (see what I just did there). Gens certainly had the right idea when constructing this film according to blueprints…but it’s like one of those pieces of Wal-Mart furniture that when you open the box, all you can find are the instructions that aren’t in your language – wing and a prayer…but we all know what prayers get you, don’t we, Father?

    My advice to all who come seeking some hellacious activity – stick to The Exorcist and you’ll never be let down.

    • Film
    2

    Summary

    The Crucifixion is one of those films that needs the help of the man above in order to raise its faith, but I think he might have been out to lunch when this one came around.

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    User Rating 3.8 (5 votes)
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    Black Christmas Blu-ray Review – Making Its U.K. Debut From 101 Films

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    Starring Keir Dullea, Olivia Hussey, John Saxon, Art Hindle

    Directed by Bob Clark

    Distributed by 101 Films


    There is only one Bob Clark Christmas movie I watch each year and it doesn’t feature Ralphie and his Red Ryder fantasies.

    The endurance of Clark’s 1974 legendary slasher, Black Christmas, can be chalked up to a number of factors but the greatest is this: it is a disturbing film. I frequently come across horror message board topics asking for genuinely scary titles devoid of jump scares and excessive gore, but oddly enough Black Christmas doesn’t get many mentions. Maybe because it has been relegated to the “seasonal viewing only” heap? Regardless, fans will agree that the unsettling events portrayed don’t diminish with repeat viewings; if anything, subsequent watching serves to reinforce that it is a standout among a sea of imitators. The film is also a noted influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) – arguably the granddaddy of slasher films – adding a bit of prestige to its legacy.

    The girls of Pi Kappa Sig are throwing a holiday party before the Christmas break when, toward the end of the night, they receive a phone call from a man they’ve been calling “The Moaner”, who has a habit of calling and making unusual noises. Jess (Olivia Hussey) initially accepts the call but also allows her other sisters to listen in, prompting outspoken Barb (Margot Kidder) to jump on the line and goad this mystery man. She and Phyllis (Andrea Martin) argue over the possibility this guy may be more threatening than anyone realizes. Unbeknownst to the ladies partying downstairs, however, moments before the phone call came through an unidentified person (very likely this same caller) snuck up the side of the house and into the attic. And once the party wraps up that same person is found hiding in Claire’s (Lynne Griffin) closet, whereupon she is strangled and placed in a rocking chair in the attic.

    The next day Claire’s father comes to the campus to meet her and is understandably stood up. He heads to the sorority house and reports her missing, at which point the girls and their housemother, Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), agree to help him locate her. The file a report with the police, led by Lt. Fuller (John Saxon), and Jess also wrangles in Claire’s semi-boyfriend, Chris (Art Hindle), who helps bolster the search by raising hell at the station. Jess, meanwhile, is having problems of her own after confessing to her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), she is pregnant. She wants an abortion; he is vehemently against it. Claire’s absence grows more concerning when another missing girl is found dead in a nearby park, prompting the cops to ramp up their efforts. The girls are being picked off one by one as the unseen assailant remains hidden in the attic, continuing his phone calls that come after each murder. The cops suspect Peter may be a person of interest, as his interactions with Jess have become increasingly aggressive, but everyone is in for a shock when a tap on the line reveals the true source of the calls – they are coming from within the house.

    With the film having been around for over forty years, and fans having been sold one “upgraded” home video version after the next, I suspect most readers are more interested in how Scream Factory’s Blu-ray stacks up against similar editions – which is basically my way of saying this review is a bit glib. For the uninitiated, however, let me say that I cannot overstate how exceptional Clark’s film is – never giving the killer an identity, an entire subplot concerning abortion, a palpable sense of grief for Claire’s father, a cast of interesting, unique people who don’t ever feel like archetypes, and a potentially downer of an ending. Some of his moviemaking tricks are brilliant, like the decision to create Billy’s voice from a combination of three different people (one a woman) and using interchangeable actors to portray the killer so you’re never quite sure who is in the attic. Carl Zittrer’s score is disorienting and minimal, making use of odd instrumentation to add extra unease; it also appears infrequently, giving the movie more of a real life quality. Black Christmas was a reasonable success upon release, more so commercially than critically, but time has been kind to this old gem and many now view it as an outright horror classic.

    Hell, it was Elvis’ favorite Christmas movie.

    Cult label 101 Films is giving the film its U.K. debut, presenting a transfer that is nearly identical to the remastered version Scream Factory released last year in North America. That 1.85:1 1080p picture is very likely the best this film can and will ever look. Black Christmas has a long home video history of looking very grainy, murky, dulled, and soft. I can’t say the new disc’s results are far off that mark but there are clear improvements. For one, grain has been resolved in a tighter field that looks less “noisy” and more “grindhouse-y”; do not expect an image clear as a crystal unicorn by any means. There is still softness to many faces and objects though detail looks far better here than it ever has before. Colors are more vibrant, too. Black levels run on the hazy side but they’re more stable than ever. The only noticeable difference between the Scream Factory and 101 Films versions are the latter is a touch brighter, allowing for a little more detail to filter through.

    Audio is available via an English LPCM 5.1 surround sound track or a 2.0 stereo option. The multi-channel effort grants the unsettling soundtrack and Billy’s insane vocalizations more room to breathe, ratcheting up the creepiness thanks to the sense of immersion. Unlike the Scream Factory edition, the original mono track is not included.

    Only a handful of extra features have been included, all of which can be found on the Scream Factory edition, too.

    “Film and Furs: Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle” – Hindle, who still owns that jacket, talks about being a working actor in Canada when there wasn’t much work, as well as how he wound up auditioning for Clark for a different role.

    “Victims and Virgins: Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin” – The actress who is most famous for having a plastic bag over her head tells a few tales from the set.

    “Black Christmas Legacy” – This is a lot of interviews from the film’s actors and notable fans. I found it to be a bit tedious.

    A handful of original TV and radio spots have been included, along with the “40th Anniversary Reunion Panel: Fan Expo Canada 2014”.

    The package also includes a fold-out poster, reversible cover art, and a DVD copy.

    Special Features:

    • Film and Furs: Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle
    • Victims and Virgins: Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin
    • Black Christmas Legacy
    • Original TV and Radio spots
    • 40th Anniversary Reunion Panel: Fan Expo Canada 2014
    • Black Christmas
    • Special Features
    4.0

    Summary

    This is an easy recommendation for purchase if you live in the U.K., since this is the film’s Blu-ray debut. Stateside readers may find this region-free version attractive due to the price, but know that it does contain significantly fewer extras than the in-print Scream Factory release. Either way, fans on both sides of the Atlantic have a version worth buying.

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    User Rating 3.33 (12 votes)
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    Friends Don’t Let Friends Review – A Haunting Mixture of Psychological Turmoil and Brutal Supernatural Horror

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    Starring Brittany Anne Woodford, Jenny Curtis, Kanin Guntzelman, Brendan McGowan, Jake White

    Directed by James S. Brown

    We all like to think of ourselves as being surrounded by friends, but let’s face it, if we were to ever truly hit hard times, there are probably very few, if any, people we could truly rely on. So on some level, Friends Don’t Let Friends is a film we can all relate too, as it deals with this very issue.

    Stephanie is an emotionally unstable young woman who strangles her boyfriend to death after he insults and breaks up with her. She calls her friends to help her dispose the body out in the Joshua Tree National Part area, and instead of reporting her to the police, they reluctantly comply. As their car breaks down, the four friends find themselves alone at night in the Californian wilderness with the rotting corpse in need of disposal. Given their dire circumstances, they begin to become more and more aggressive towards each other, and this was where the film was really at its best. I was on the edge of my seat, wondering how far the limits of their friendship could be stretched, and who would be the first to crack and turn on the others.

    Anyway, their body disposal endeavor soon proves to be a mistake, as Stephanie’s ex rises from the grave as vengeful zombie demon thing with claws as long as knives. I’ll admit, I first I thought Friends Don’t Let Friends was going to be a movie purely about the limits of trust, so I was pretty surprised when the supernatural elements came into play. And when they did, the trust and friendship elements of the plot were somewhat downplayed in favor of a more traditional horror approach, and while it was still entertaining, I still would have preferred for the film not to have strayed from its initial path. At least the ending came as a shocker. I won’t go into spoilers, but let’s just say the even the most attentive viewers probably won’t see it coming.

    As you can probably guess from a psychologically-driven film of this kind, the performances were top notch, with Brittany Anne Woodford being on particularly top form as the manipulative and unstable Stephanie, a character who revels in the revels in the power she felt when ending another human life.

    With its mixture of psychological turmoil and brutal supernatural horror, Friends Don’t Let Friends is a film I would certainly recommend, but keep in mind that it may make you think twice when confiding in people who you think of as being your friends.

    8 out of 10.

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