Before you skim down to the score at the bottom of this one, be warned that you are not ready for Excision. In one sharp, calculated, grotesque fell swoop, first time feature director Richard Bates Jr. has crafted a film to make you sit up and pay attention… or run screaming for the exits. A lot of people are going to be appalled by this movie, not least for the fantasy sequence in which an aborted foetus pops in a microwave. So consider yourself on notice; this one’s going to be divisive.
AnnaLynne McCord (of 90210 fame no less) plays Pauline, the troubled older daughter in an unassuming suburban family. The household is kept by domineering mother Phyllis (Traci Lords), whose husband Bob (Roger Bart) appears to have long ago lost that particular battle of wills. Their younger daughter Grace (Ariel Winter) is seriously ill with cystic fibrosis and will no doubt require medical intervention soon. It’s a tough time for the controlling Phyllis – who keeps a house as though she’s waiting for Martha Stewart to drop by, made all the more fraught by Pauline’s abnormal behaviour.
You see, Pauline is something of an outsider, to put it mildly. Horrified by the white-washed facades of her middle-class neighbourhood and conservative upbringing, she is the definition of youth in revolt. Pauline is teenage hormonal angst and defiance made flesh, but with a deeply troubling psychological rot at the core also. At night she dreams of herself reincarnated as a goddess of the most unusual sexualised surgical procedures; a vision of beauty and malice in sequences which call to mind the elegance of a Vogue photo shoot performed by David Cronenberg or Dario Argento. Pauline is the girl in sex-ed class who asks, “Can you contract an STD from having sex with a dead person?” and means it.
McCord is clearly having the time of her life, fearlessly jumping into a controversial role and making as much of it as possible. Pauline openly relishes her antisocial status, craving more, pushing the limits. In doing so, she pushes our abilities to sympathise with her. However it’s just this devilish behaviour that curries our hesitant favour. Despite everything… we’re kind of on her side. And there are some serious gross-out stunts that this girl pulls. Excision is most definitely not for the faint-hearted. You will need a strong stomach, and even if you have one, you may still not be prepared for Pauline’s final performance. Remember when I said you have been warned? Considered yourself warned again.
Why is Pauline so troubled? Is she acting out to provoke a response from her mother? To get approval? Does she feel overshadowed by the hardships befalling her younger sister? Bates Jr. doesn’t offer us easy answers to these questions. One of Excision‘s few touching scenes is one in which Pauline shows open affection for Grace. Maybe she truly is sickened by the redundant culture and erased personalities that greet her at every turn. It’s hard not to agree with her some of the time. She is in many ways a kindred spirit to Enid of Ghost World, out to expose the perfunctory comas that those around her call lives. Excision is a slap in the face to banality, purposefully provocative, and destined to become a cult classic.
Certainly this is the best kooky high-school movie since Donnie Darko, and Bates Jr. is happy to nod to the other beacons of the sub-genre. Witness how Pauline and Grace play croquet on the front lawn – a direct reference to Heathers, and nobody is going to win any prizes for connecting this movie right back to Carrie. Excision wears its sickly cult heart on its sleeve, then proceeds to show you just how it was surgically removed. Anyone doubting this just needs to look at the supporting cast, which features the original teenage bad-boy Malcolm McDowell, the ever-watchable John Waters and the inimitable Ray Wise (who, between this and Tim And Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie has proven himself up for more or less anything this year).
And then there’s Traci Lords of course, brilliantly bitchy as the ice-maiden mother who provokes much of Pauline’s bad behaviour.
Bates Jr. himself brings plenty to the table. Besides a taut, blackly comic script, there are some extraordinarily rendered sequences here, he’s proven he can play funny just as well as he can play horror – and make no mistake, this film is a horror – the film’s final throes will chill the blood of all but the most hardened of viewers. The photography throughout is sharp and exacting, whilst the score provided by Steve Damstra II and Mads Heldtberg underpins key scenes with a delicious sting of the sinister.
After a year largely comprised of good, decent films that impressed without demanding much of the viewer, Excision felt like a welcome jolt to the senses. It’s the kind of adrenaline shot that only ever really comes from the fringes, and thanks to its questionable content the film has struggled to find a cinema release here in the UK. It’s at once a shame and entirely fitting. Excision is the kind of film that travels by word-of-mouth, not adverts on bus shelters or on the glossy back cover of FHM magazine. Pauline wouldn’t have approved of that kind of commercial acceptance anyway.
Funny, disturbing, outlandish and distinctive, Excision takes tried and tested character types and situations and shakes them like a newborn baby. And if my wording there seems upsetting or reprehensible to you, then please, leave this movie well alone. That’s at least three times I warned you. Maybe I’m being too precious, not giving you enough credit to see the creativity here, the beauty in Pauline’s sickness. Maybe I’m sick too. But Excision just about made my year.