Ed. note- I found out after watching EXCISION that there’s a short film version with a totally different cast, but the same ending. I want you to feel the full impact, so watch the feature film first. You’ll be devastated for a long time.- P.F.
If John Waters directed a millennial horror movie, it would be EXCISION. Waters has always had a way with society’s outcasts struggling against a cleansed world of suburbia. Director Richard Bates, Jr. has taken Waters as his model—so much that Waters actually cameos in the film— and turned modern teen angst on its ear with what is one weird, powerful debut.
EXCISION centers around Pauline. She’s the weird daughter of the dominant Phyllis and browbeaten Bob. Her younger sister Grace suffers from cystic fibrosis. Pauline has an antagonistic relationship not only with her family, but with the world and everyone in it. She’s also obsessed with medical procedures, and fantasizes about some hypersexual version of herself performing them on sexy bodies. Her family doesn’t understand her, her teachers don’t understand her, her peers don’t understand her, her priest doesn’t understand her. Not that she helps herself. But late in the game, Pauline decides to make amends with the world and commit the ultimate act of selflessness, one that is altogether horrifying.
Bates could have drawn the family in broad strokes, and either given me more to sympathize with Pauline or a lot less; that would’ve made it easy for me to side with someone. But he doesn’t, and therein lies the film’s power. Take Traci Lords as Phyllis. She spends the first half of the movie saying really mean things to her daughter, who’s clearly not cut from the same mold. It’s easy to hate her. But Lords makes choices that humanize Phyllis in the second half, including in that horrifying last scene. There’s a softer side to her that identifies her own failures as a mother, and subtly shows that she actually does lover her oddball elder daughter, but has no idea how to handle her.
And oh, is Pauline hard to handle. Unglamorized and unrepentant, she takes on the world with both fists clenched. She uses a horny boy to lose her virginity, but punishes him in disgusting fashion during the act. She berates Waters’ preacher William, who seems befuddled with her in their brief time together. In an attempt to get out of the cotillion her mother pushes on her, she pukes on a classmate. AnnaLynne McCord, mostly known for her role in the reboot of 90210, does a superb job of bringing out the confusion and angst an outsider feels in her teen years. She’s just a screwed up kid, making her way through a cookie cutter world in which she will never fit, and McCord gets that. If I never liked Pauline, at least I could understand her, and therefore sympathize as a fellow outsider. McCord is so good, in fact, I fear that “normal” people—as in the majority of Americans— will find nobody to like in EXCISION. But then again, EXCISION is not for people with normal tastes.
The one thing people will always remember EXCISION for is its ending. The horror genre is no stranger to shocking conclusions before (see my reviews of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and SLEEPAWAY CAMP, to name a few), but that doesn’t make this one resonate any less deeply within me. The film’s final act set me up for it, and I knew it was coming, but like a deer in the headlights I couldn’t escape it, and it will haunt me for a while. In an act of both redemption and salvation, Pauline makes a choice that is so utterly twisted it seems unfathomable, so misguided, yet ultimately the only choice she could make in this movie. I sat with my jaw agape as the end credits rolled, and hours later it still hurts.
To move me like that is not some happy accident. Bates, who also wrote the script, has a dark vision of America, and a talented eye for direction. He gets the most out of his actors, and his camera work is gorgeous, especially in Pauline’s fantasy scenes, where sex, death and operations all intertwine. EXCISION isn’t a movie for everyone, and that’s great. As the best of art does, it challenges the viewer, and I look forward to watching Bates’ follow up, SUBURBAN GOTHIC.
I probably enjoyed EXCISION so much because it’s a film about an outsider. Bates has done his best to channel ultimate outsider John Waters and make a modern horror film in his image. As an outsider myself, I applaud that.