The World Within Her: A Review of Richard Bates Jr.‘s “Excision”

If you are a weird person (and the chances of that, considering you read Weird Fiction Review, are fairly high), then you most likely discovered this salient fact about yourself when you were young. Some discover this in preschool, but middle school, for many of us, was the moment we realized we fit in with our peers about as well as would an alien being. For others, though, high school is the lonely, garishly lit stage on which their oddities are exposed for the first time. Everyone, granted, feels to varying degrees that they do not fit in, particularly when caught in that rush of hormones, unfamiliar urges, peer pressure, nascent antagonism against adults, and general misery which characterizes the teen years. Let us grant further, however, that some people are (or feel) stranger than others. excision_xlgWhether this alienation arises from external differences (racial status, non-conformity with gender expectations, economic status, national origin, sexual orientation, physical disabilities or distinctions) or those of a more subtle “interior” sort (psychological/emotional peculiarities, for instance, or a divergence of aesthetic preferences) simply does not matter in the end: if you are made to feel weird, you will most likely become even weirder. Many of us come to embrace our oddity, to turn it into a strength, a solace, even a career. Plenty of us, though, do not, cannot, and fall. Excision, a searing, subversive horror film from first-time director Richard Bates, Jr., concerns one very weird teenage girl, Pauline. Her quest to make something useful out of the very qualities which drive people from her drives this narrative, but the film delivers a plethora of other delights as well.

Pauline is played with ferocity and undeniable talent by AnnaLynne McCord. Cult television viewers may know McCord from her stint as the conniving Eden Lord on Nip/Tuck or possibly from the new 90210, but it is in Excision that McCord really shines. Awkward, ungainly, and pimpled, Pauline, on paper, sounds like a character to be pitied. Her parents despair of her, her peers are repulsed, and her estimation of her own talents seems wildly out of proportion to her abilities. 364597.1Pauline, however, has qualities which raise her to another category than that of the loser: the wretch. Comparisons between Excision and Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse are inevitable, but limited. Dawn Wiener, from the latter movie, or Napoleon Dynamite, from his eponymous film, arouse uneasy empathy in those of us who identify with them, and something closer to Schadenfreude in those of us who do not. Pauline is a stronger figure, drawn with a bolder brush. What has driven Pauline into the margins of human experience is never explained (though she herself tosses out a semi-mocking diagnosis), but it has charged her with an élan vital and a vision which are nearer magnificence than they are bathos. She is, in this, more akin to Donnie Darko (in the film of the same name) than any other teen outcast character. You may fear Pauline, throughout the trajectory of her story, or you may cheer her, but you will likely never sneer. I, for one, am heartened to see such a strong, self-contained role written for a young woman, and I hope Excision helps expand the field of female characters.

McCord’s portrayal of Pauline is aided and abetted by a cast culled from a broad range of cult television and film. Roger Bart (familiar to fans of Desperate Housewives, Hostel: Part II, and the chilling The Midnight Meat Train[1]) plays her bewildered father Bob in a role which would typically be comprised of a handful of clichés. maxresdefault2Director-writer Bates, though, develops Bob and Pauline’s mother, Phyllis, more fully, more humanely. Traci Lords (known for her appearances in John Waters’ films as well as for a youthful career which is a story in itself) embodies Phyllis incredibly. Torn between suburban vanity, emotional blindness, and a faltering love for her daughter, Phyllis tries in all the worst ways to bring her daughter out of herself. Eluding, again, one-dimensional characterization, Bates and Lords invest Phyllis with depth which slowly but surely reveals itself over the course of the film. In a fair world (one in which The Silence of the Lambs was not one of only two horror movies ever to have been nominated for the Best Picture award), both McCord and Lords would have at least have been considered for Oscars. Excision is rounded out by a cast of cameos so pleasing, and so appropriate, they make their own thematic sense. As several other reviewers have argued, almost every recognizable actor/actress in this movie has weathered a life characterized by bad beginnings, trials, and/or weird reputations. Their very presence is a reminder that it is possible to come out the other side of a troubled youth a stronger, even productive person. I restrain myself from listing them all because I think the surprise is a real pleasure of the film (though the trailer posted below gives the whole game away). excision6I will say that television’s worst and most loving father makes an appearance as a helpless principal, and that John Waters plays a straight-laced minister, which is hilarious and wrong on so many levels.

The world into which Excision thrusts its viewers from its first shot is one of surrealistic madness, a realm of depraved pleasures and irrational causation Luis Buñuel and Clive Barker may have dreamt up together, had we ever been so fortunate to see such a pairing. I have posted the first of these at the top of this review, as it is an appropriate introduction to this film. This is Pauline’s dream-world, an oddly clinical space in which the most gruesome, and puzzling, of tableaux play out. Eros and Thanatos, gods of sex and death, seem to rule this realm in amicable partnership. Sensuality, here, is married to cruelty, and orgasms entwined with mutilations. Bates only rarely slips into this space, but it slyly contaminates the film. excision-annalyne-mccord31This bright-line drawn between fantasy and banality contributes to the mystery of Pauline and the film overall, rather than serving as a cop-out. The vivid nature of these visions as well as their symbolic opacity brings to mind the work of avant-garde filmmaker Matthew Barney. In Excision, however, unlike in Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, the narrative grounds these visions, gives them a context. Pauline’s own relationship with them seems primarily enthusiastic, even erotic. They drive her onwards, yet despite her snarling and semi-sociopathic manner, she is also motivated by love and the desire for acceptance. One question the film subtly poses: how far apart are our exterior selves, those masks we wear in public, those masks with which we often fool even ourselves, and the teeming, anarchic, bizarre life within? Pauline’s case may be extreme, but somewhere inside the most placid of people lies a strange world of unresolved tensions, opaque nightmares, and unspeakable desires. Deep inside, everyone is weird. Our fundamentally strange subjectivity may be repressed, disguised, or sublimated, but can it ever really be removed? Be excised? Should it be?44211d790223246338439562d8176df7 This question becomes ever more urgent as Excision moves towards its climax precisely because the distance between Pauline’s worlds is shrinking. Every adult in her life seems incapable of recognizing what is happening to this girl, and they miss opportunities in which they could have helped channel her raw vision. The more one empathizes with Pauline, even comes to admire her for her headstrong will to be herself and no one else, the more one winces at every such missed chance.

As dark and full of heartache as I am making this sound, though, I do want to point out just how funny Excision is. Bart and Waters, in particular, as well as the other cameo appearances, provide much needed relief from the potency of Pauline’s struggles. Phyllis, in her completely clueless attempts to tame her daughter, ends up orchestrating a disastrous (and hilarious) evening at the cotillion. Pauline herself, far from being grim or melancholy, is a smart-ass, a prankster. Her struggles with faith, popularity, and parental pressures are a rich source of humor Bates mines effortlessly. excision-1She delivers all the best one-liners, many of which take on added weight when one re-watches the movie. If one of Judy Blume’s characters had opened the Lament Configuration (in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser) and spent a season with the sadomasochistic Cenobites, she may have come out looking a lot like Excision’s heroine. Her attitude towards menses, for instance, while inevitably shocking to those of us living in gynophobic societies, is somehow refreshing, serving as a counterpoint to the self-loathing shown by one of her cinematic cousins, the lovely Carrie White. Rather than clashing with the darker, unhappy, even nightmarish qualities of the film, these moments of wit and absurdity serve to underscore them, to invest them with a humanity often lacking from horror movies.

Excision, alongside other relatively recent female-centric horror movies such as The Descent, May, Haute Tension and Triangle, points the genre in some fruitful directions. Excision_filmstill3_AnnaLynneMcCord_byItayGrossWhile antagonistic interpretations could certainly be made of the film, I think it serves as a great example of a horror movie which does not rely on women being victims or sexual predators. Excision instead foregrounds its female characters to such a degree that most of the male figures merely hover in the background. The movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. More generally, as a depiction of what it is like to be a weird teenager struggling with the acceptance of oneself and others, I found it to be truthful. Pauline is ultimately an endearing character (definitely an unforgettable one) despite her flaws and some of the dark places to which it takes her. Richard Bates Jr., with the indispensable help of AnnaLynne McCord and Traci Lords, has created a movie which fearlessly tackles taboos and the weird and wrings a surprisingly moving tale from it.Excision

[1] And yes, I am fully aware I may be one of the few fans of all three of these pieces.

The trailer moves pretty heavily into spoiler territory, but it captures the film’s essence nicely: