It should be fairly obvious by now that I have a pretty dark sense of humor. Descended from a family of morticians, I was raised around gallows humor and have always gotten a good giggle out of the grotesque. I am always on the lookout for new dark comedies, and when I discovered the trailer and DVD box for Excision, I was stoked. It played at Sundance, won a bunch of awards in the horror community, and was basically a who’s-who of cult flicks. Traci Lords, Malcolm McDowell, and John Waters sealed the deal on my interest and I was off to enjoy this warped little movie.
The film tells the story of Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord), a pimple-faced, greasy-haired teenage girl obsessed with surgery. She fantasizes about surgical procedures while she masturbates and dreams of one day becoming a surgeon herself despite her failing grades in school. Her overbearing mother (a brilliant Traci Lords) tries to control her in every way and guilt trips her for being healthy while her younger, more mainstream sister Grace (Ariel Winter) is dying from cystic fibrosis. Over the course of the film, Pauline goes through her own coming-of-age story, losing her virginity to a popular boy, dissecting a dead bird she found, and learning about surgical procedures in an attempt to save her sister.
There’s a lot going on in this film and to talk about the plot too much would spoil it all, so instead, let’s dissect the rest of it.
The acting is phenomenal. I didn’t even recognize AnnaLynne McCord from her days as Eden Lord, the beautiful sociopath daughter of Portia De Rossi on Nip/Tuck. She manages to be disgusting and horrible while still forcing the viewer to sympathise with her now and again. She is so incredibly raw and human in this film, letting it all hang out emotionally and physically. The character of Pauline is well-written, which helps, but McCord’s performance brings her to life. I felt like I had gone to high school with her by the time the film had ended.
Everyone else is really good in this as well. Traci Lords, who can be hit or miss, is fantastic. She’s similar to the overbearing mothers in fluffier coming-of-age films like Juno and Whip It, but with a healthy dose of wine and “I’ve had enough of your bullshit”. Ariel Winter is good as Grace but doesn’t have much to do other than cough and look cute. Malcolm McDowell plays Malcolm McDowell as Pauline’s teacher (although he does have a few comedic moments.) Ray Wise is fun as Pauline’s principal and set me off on a pretty good game of “Where the hell do I know that guy from?”
John Waters only has a few minutes of screen time and he is subdued and gentlemanly in the part of Pauline’s minister. Her family cannot afford a real therapist and so they enlist poor Reverend William, who is verbally abused again and again by Pauline. Waters doesn’t have to open his mouth to share his disgust – he just has to use his eyebrows.
This film is a visual roller coaster. The fantasy scenes are high-contrast, starkly lit and gorgeous to look at. Scenes featuring “innocent” characters, like little sister Grace or the jump-roping neighbor girl, are reminiscent of Tim Burton’s pastels in Big Fish or Edward Scissorhands. The rest of the movie feels dirty and dark, with a lot of neutral tones and focus on people’s imperfections. By moving between these styles, the film manages to keep the viewer on their toes and also separates the real world from an idealized world and from Pauline’s own sick world.
The fantasy scenes start out weird and progress into the kind of bizarre sex-and-blood orgy you only see in music videos and Cronenberg films. They’re also really, really pretty. Most of the fantasy scenes transition back and forth between what’s going on in Pauline’s head and what’s going on in reality, which is usually her masturbating. It feels voyeuristic in a truly uncomfortable way.
The biggest problem I have with Excision is a tonal shift that happens about halfway through the movie. Things go from darkly funny to bleak and sad, and by the time it happens the viewer is so wrapped up in the characters that they’re willing to see it through until the end, even if it’s going to absolutely destroy them emotionally. Most coming-of-age horror movies focus heavily on body horror or external influences, but Excision focuses on just how much it really sucks to be a teenager. It’s even worse for Pauline, who is clearly mentally unstable and also has the added stress of a dysfunctional family and a sick sister. Grace is the one shining light in Pauline’s life and it’s quickly fading, which proves detrimental to Pauline’s already fragile psyche.
The change in tone works well within the framework of the movie but is really something a person should be prepared for. Unlike other dark horror comedies, this sucker leaves you feeling sick and bruised inside. This is not a fun ride. There is something to be said for the incredible honesty at work here – the characters are so believably real and the drama that surrounds them is so relatable that it’s easy to feel empathy for them. Whether or not you like Pauline, everyone knows someone like her, someone who went to their school and really didn’t fit in, someone a little off who just needed understanding.
This ain’t no Pretty in Pink. Excision is a horrifying, bloody, painful look at what it’s like to be an outcast. The final fifteen minutes are both perfect and horrible, the kind of cataclysmic event that is impossible to look away from. While I will probably never watch this film all the way through again, I am glad that I saw it. On a technical level the movie is nearly brilliant, and on an emotional level it managed to destroy me in ways that very few other films have. (Martyrs and Irreversible are the only two I can think of that come close.)
So do I recommend Excision? Absolutely. Anyone who likes their horror to be more than gore and cheap thrills should give it a watch. Even if it doesn’t have the same emotional impact as it did for me, there are still plenty of neat visuals and fine acting to get you through.
Violence: 7/10 There’s a good bit of blood and gore here, especially in the fantasy sequences.
Sex: 8/10 Quite a bit of sex, although most of it is uncomfortable to watch. The fantasy sequences are chock-full of female nudity and fetishism.
Entertainment value: 5/10 The first half is actually a lot of fun as a dark comedy, but once it spirals into something else the entertainment value is lost.
This movie is for: Arthouse fans, gorehounds with a sick sense of humor, anyone who’s ever been an angsty teen and can stomach this kind of thing.
Overall rating: 8/10 This movie ruined my entire day when I watched it, but the fact that it made me feel that repulsed means it did something right. This isn’t something you watch because you want to have a good time, but it is well-shot, well-acted, and well-written. I just wish it had been marketed a bit differently so I had known what I was getting into.