670 – Excision (***1/2)


Image from Film Arcade.
In Excision, a high school misfit goes to great lengths to win over her domineering, conservative mother. Although it’s presented as a horror film – and opened the Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival – it’s a psychosexual thriller, rife with imagery set against a pastiche of normative teenage angst and desperation. It is a brilliant, provocative, unsettling film.

Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) is the misfit. Scarred with acne and and overall unkempt look and poor posture, she is the poster child for unpopularity. But, like many cinematic rebels before her, she looks upon the idea of being liked almost with disdain. The opinions of others don’t influence her.

Pauline aspires to be a doctor, but she is anything but a model student. She challenges her teachers and plays her classmates against each other for her own gain. She has no friends, and her therapy consists of visits to the local priest, whereupon she notes the hypocrisy of his understanding her moral issues when he’s by definition pretty repressed himself.

She’s part of a nuclear family. Dad Bob (Roger Bart) is a success at something, but he’s under the thumb of his controlling wife Phyllis (Traci Lords). Sister Grace is the favorite of the family, partly because she’s so nice and good and sweet but also because she is suffering from cystic fibrosis.

Of all the people with whom Pauline interacts on a regular basis, she cares only for Grace. She despairs of her sister’s imminent death and wishes the same on her mother. Typical for a teenager, to an extreme perhaps.

Throughout the movie, Pauline sets particular goals for herself and then completes them, in opposition to her attitude toward school and life in general. When her mother forces her to be (at an advanced age) part of a cotillion, Pauline understandably ruins the affair. But when she wants to pursue a career in medicine, she goes to the library (cutting school) and researches her sister’s condition.

You may well ask what the title implies. Something is being excised. We’ve already established that Pauline wants to be a doctor, but what is to be excised is something I cannot reveal here. On a less literal front, Pauline wants to excise her mother’s influence from her own life and the pain and suffering from that of her sister.

This is not a movie for the faint of heart. It is not dripping with blood and contains no projectile vomiting, but Pauline’s dreams – which include impromptu surgeries that equate to intercourse in her mind – are erotic, disturbing, grisly, and symbolic.

McCord nails the role of Pauline. Dolled up for the cotillion, she looks almost presentable, but even when she’s her slovenly self you can see her beauty – eyes, wit, intelligence, smile – even if no one else in the movie can. McCord sells the film by subtly morphing Pauline from an outcast to a sociopath; at first, you take her for just another weird kid in the hall, but over time you see her as clearly losing her grip on reality.

And I didn’t think I’d say this, but Lords is really good – in an ironic role – as the pushy, moralizing mom. Traci, you’ve come a long way, baby.

It’s very hard to believe this is writer/director Richard Bates Jr.’s first film, feature or otherwise. The writing is tight, and he gets a lot out of his cast – which includes John Waters and Malcolm McDowell. It’s a stunning debut.

I wasn’t sure how the movie was going to end, although it was clear I was being led in a particular direction. I wasn’t misled, but the conclusion is still a knockout; leaving just enough unresolved to be satisfying.

Excision is thrilling, a movie that will resonate with anyone who’s felt unloved and with anyone who likes tales of revenge and redemption. It wisely picks a course and never goes too over the top with its set pieces. It’s not a mild-mannered film, but it’s also not an overwrought, ham-fisted gorefest. It’s cleverly nuanced, achingly acted, and a mind-blowing masterpiece.

Excision: ***1/2

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