Of the many accolades this film has accumulated over the past year “Feel Good Movie of the Year” has not been one of them. I had not heard of this movie (I’ve really been out of the horror loop for a while) until fellow blogger JP Thorn sent me a text of it’s poster while I was at the Born of Osiris concert back in October. The cover enticed me. It looked like some kinda baroque period piece.
It is not.
Anna Lynne McCord (90210) stars as Pauline, a troubled young Virginia suburbanite who dreams of being a surgeon to cure her sister Grace (Ariel Winter, of Modern Family) of cystic fibrosis. Pauline has these very disturbing and vivid dreams in which she sees herself almost as beautiful dark Queen over a series of freaks. From the opening scene of the film the dreams make a strange sense. We are seeing Pauline’s megalomania subconsciously swallowing up her real self. The film infers some of these visions are wet dreams.
Meanwhile, Pauline manipulates and ostracizes herself from everyone around her through her anti-social actions. In the first scene, she asks her biology teacher if it is possible to get an STD from having sex with a dead person. At first, it seems she’s just….stunted. The next scene we see her outside on the bleachers next to the “popular kids” (you can tell they are popular because they are better looking than Pauline) gossiping about one of the girls boyfriends. When the boyfriend shows up, Pauline repeats what she has heard directly to him. Ok, I’m thinking, “so maybe she has asperger’s?”
Then she does something else you’ll just have to see, and I realized the problem isn’t that she’s stunted or awkward, it’s just that Pauline is a sick bitch.
The rest of the film follows how Pauline lashes out at those around her and how that combines with her family dynamic: the apathy of her father (Roger Bart), the overbearing of her mother (Traci Lords), and the acceptance of her sister and how these things play out until the end.
In an interesting bit of casting, director Richard Bates Jr. also has Ray Wise, Malcolm McDowell, and John Waters play as authority figures in Pauline’s life. Bates manages to do this without it coming across as stunt casting. Bates reveals on the commentary track that he put them in these roles because of the way the three’s works helped get him through high school. I could relate to that line of reasoning as I think most of us kids who grew up during the VHS era of cult films can also attest.
I can not compliment McCord’s performance enough. Pauline is rotten to the core, but we develop a strange sympathy with her. She is lost and confused in a path largely of her own making but I kept hoping she’d turn the corner. We see her praying to God in several scenes, even though she believes herself to be an atheist, and I kept thinking maybe she’d get out of the darkness shes put herself into. It’s a bold and arrogant performance that she goes all out in, no holding back. In the commentary track it’s revealed that Bates initially did not want McCord in the movie and McCord had to fight him to have the role. Over dinner, she was told she’d have to shave her head for the movie. Bates did not think McCord would be brave enough of an actress to do that. McCord finally couldn’t take his second guessing anymore and shut him up by taking a knife from the table and lopping her hair off then and there. It’s that kind of primal gusto that drives the character forward and makes the film so compelling.
In my early teens, I had a really nasty bout with depression and for the better part of a year was huge asshole to a lot of people after my dad died. This leads me to one of my main issues of the film, Pauline’s anger is never explained, it’s just chalked up to her being “troubled”. I felt a little bit more explanation was warranted with this rage (and her obsession with surgery), but that’s just me. Minor flaws aside, this is a strong debut for Bates and it is his love letter to those films that helped us through high school. It is one of the best horror films I have seen in a while and I look forward to what he does next.