Richard Bates Jr.’s Excision is a film that wallows in its own strangeness. It bounces back and forth between gleeful gore, creepy moodiness, and a pitch-black sense of humor. Startling and graphic imagery that is frankly gross at times—as is point—is set against the backdrop of a deeply troubled and dysfunctional family.
Pauline (AnneLyne McCord, 90210) is a delusional high school senior with aims on becoming a celebrated surgeon, despite displaying a complete disinterest in math and science. Nerdy, plain, and driven by obsession, she wants to lose her virginity to a popular boy, and comes into constant conflict with her overbearing harpy of a mother, played by Traci Lords. Add a sister dying of cystic fibrosis (Ariel Winter, Modern Family), and a spineless, ineffectual father (Roger Bart, Law Abiding Citizen), and you have a true portrait of broken family.
McCord goes for it with gusto in her portrayal of Pauline. Sometimes her performance is chilling, eerie, and affecting, and her scenes with John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Polyester) as a head-shrinking priest, are among the highlights of Excision. At her best, Pauline is that kind of awkward that makes everyone around uncomfortable. There are times, however, when they’re trying so hard to make Pauline ugly and unappealing that she comes across as a slack-jawed parody of a Geico caveman.
A largely unsympathetic character, Pauline is difficult to root for. Her home life sucks, there’s no denying that, but she uses this as an excuse to be a complete asshole to everyone she encounters, even the few people in this film with something to offer. The only times she is even remotely likable are the few touching moments she shares with her sister, a gloomy goodie-two-shoes who is doomed to watch all of her friends die, knowing full well that she is not long for this world either.
This duality is really the story of Excision as a whole. The film jumps around with reckless abandon, between gleeful shock and gore, to horror, to drama and comedy. Chaotic and irregular ,Excision is also a damn amount of fun, at times. If you’re after a movie that doesn’t pull any punches—there are, among others, a bloody tampon sniffing scene, and a gore-soaked abortion fantasy that is truly unsettling—and does so with a wide, cheery smile on its face, then this is for you. If you haven’t guessed it at this point, Excision is not a movie for the faint of heart.
There are missteps, to be sure. Interspersed throughout the narrative are clumsy moments where Pauline prays to God. An atheist at heart, they’re supposed to show her changing perspective and devolving mental state, but they’re cumbersome and intrusive. And though there are times when the gore is used with nice results, there are others when it feels like they couldn’t come up with anything to do in a given scene rather than smear blood all over it.
Fans of gratuitous gore have a lot to bask in with Excision, but the film gets repetitive as Pauline pushes back against a cavalcade of blank authority figure archetypes. There’s the aforementioned priest, a disdainful teacher (Malcolm McDowell), and a principal (Ray Wise) who, well, you’re not really sure why he’s there. All three of these actors are completely underused, to the point where they barely play any part at all. And there’s also a stereotypical teen-queen-bee type (Molly McCook) to rage against. At times it feels like an extended episode of Glee, only with more blood and less singing.
Maybe if Bates, who wrote and directed Excision based on his own short film of the same name, had embraced more of the trashy absurdity of the story, this could have been great. Instead the film is unsure of what it is. Is this a crazy-ass homage to John Waters, or a psychological teen thriller that shares parallels with Carrie? The internal schizophrenia holds the film back from the potential it shows.
The transfer on the Blu-ray looks great, which enhances the imagery of Pauline’s vivid fantasy life. Most of her flights of fancy are saturated in blood, which is set off against stark white backgrounds, naked bodies, and pasty skin.
Aside from a nice looking picture, and a menu that’s a pain in the ass to navigate, the only bonus feature on the Excision disc is a commentary featuring Bates and McCord. Fortunately it’s a good one. The writer/director and star have a natural chemistry and back and forth that makes this entertaining to listen to.
Beyond that, the track is full of fun and harrowing stories from set. A long, troubled journey to the screen, these tales provide a nice peek into behind the curtain of low-budget filmmaking. Along the way they lost financing several times, ate shooting days due to permit issues, and almost didn’t cast McCord in the lead. It took her cutting off her hair with a steak knife in the middle of a diner to seal the deal. All in all, this is worth your time and effort.