Equal parts polished camp and unmanufactured horror, Excision is a film that made me hate both it and myself while huddling low in my seat and, at times, diverting my eyes. And yet I believe it is this generation’s Carrie. A descendent of Cronenberg’s preternatural use of skin and the works of John Waters, who makes a brief appearance as a pastor/therapist, this film, written and directed by Richard Bates Jr. seems to be an angsty response to movies like She’s All That (where the ugly girl transforms into a supermodel upon removing her glasses).
Though many stylistic strides away from its gritty 1976 forerunner, Excision is a fresh and grueling portrait of alienation, giving Pauline (our Carrie) a modern flare with her aggro-sexual responses to the social injustices of high school. Instead of telekinesis, Pauline is burdened by a large and fascinating ego, the power of perceived genius. Like Carrie, she has a religious fanatic for a mother, if a little more tamed for suburbia.
From the title frame—the word “excision” in white letters on bright turquoise, stretched across the screen and accompanied by an unsettling score—the viewer is taught how far the gore will splatter, even before the jump-cut to the first of several bloody, erotic fantasies. Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) is a lonely, angry teenager with an overbearing, God-fearing mother (Traci Lords) and a meek father (Roger Bart)—suburban clichés that are embraced and undermined by the end of the film. Pauline is beautiful in her repulsiveness—cold sores, acne, mouth unfailingly agape. She equally torments and is tormented by her popular, pretty peers. Rather than completing her schoolwork, she studies to become a surgeon. When her parents insist she is delusional for nurturing such aspirations, she’s only driven further down a disastrous path. Her mother is nothing if not disappointed in Pauline for being Pauline, forcing upon her ideals, religious morals, and standards of hair care. Rather than reach out to Pauline, she prays for her. She cannot see Pauline as special, as Pauline herself does, save for calling her behavior sociopathic. She visibly favors her younger daughter, who suffers from cystic fibrosis and is in need of a lung transplant. Despite this unfairness, Pauline, too, loves her sister in a unique and uncompromising way.
The film is paced episodically by a number of Pauline-centric adventures: purposefully losing her virginity while on her period (another subverted homage to Carrie); attending a cotillion dance after every attempt to escape it; pummeling her popular rival and getting suspended from school. At every turn, she tries to rise above, to excise herself from the humdrum life of white-washed suburban high school. She can’t help but believe in her own extraordinariness; she is, after all, our hero.
Bookending these episodes in Pauline’s everyday life are her sexual fantasies, which involve performing surgical procedures on men and women and ingesting their insides. The fantasy sequences are pornographic, highly stylized, and somehow beautiful. We also follow her throughout a prayer motif, in which only Pauline’s face and limbs are lit. She is beautiful in her dreams, not because she views herself this way in these settings, but because she fully morphs into a sensual being; what better way to portray this than through Pauline’s fantastical grace and sex-appeal? Learning that AnnaLynne McCord has made a career by playing “hot girl #3” on primetime shows, and as a cast member on the new 90210, makes her transformation into Pauline even more poignant. Traci Lords, too, who has struggled against the industry’s disparagement of her career in pornography, has landed one of the first roles in which she truly gets to stretch.
Pauline’s downfall is spurred, at least in part, by overhearing her mother say to her father, “it is impossible to love her.” This moment of betrayal allows us to relate to Pauline through all the static of insanity and foulness. Though (or because) everyone in Pauline’s world opposes her, the viewer is drawn to her. We are rooting for the girl who has enough self-awareness to know she ought to have gone to a qualified psychiatrist long ago, but who has not one ounce of self-control (while the other characters have too much self-control and little self-awareness).
High school ambitions have changed since Carrie, and Pauline, who has already lost her virginity after all, isn’t interested in the prom. Her inevitable climax lands us in a DIY operating room. Her attempts to excise herself from the mundanity of her suburban upbringing, culminate in a literal excision. In the final movement (and here is where the spoiler starts), Pauline, in what she views as an altruistic act, attempts to surgically save her sister, unconvinced anyone could do the job better than she. Though the operating table, set up in the family’s garage, was covered in blood, I still held onto a small, irrational hope that the real world, which Pauline only partially inhabited, was fantastical as well, that a teenager could learn to perform a lung transplant overnight, and that her sister would wake up, cured, grateful. This desire stemmed in equal parts from my attachment to the characters, and from a wariness that this gruesome end would not be earned.
But a happy ending is not what we came for; what we always turn to films for is that moment of emotional surprise. The pacing of the film suggests even Bates Jr. may have thought, as the viewer did, that the film was merely leading to a bloody climax. But in the end, his is a much quieter and greater achievement. We are propelled into a startlingly universal closing moment: Pauline’s mother embraces her in the midst of this nightmare, and this horrific, bloody film suddenly transforms into a story about love and the acceptance of family. Pauline’s failed literal excision is mirrored by her failed metaphorical one—unable to excise herself from the mediocrity of her life, she collapses into the safety and comfort of family that she has for so long resisted. It’s a spectacular failure that engenders a spectacular redemption. And the film, which otherwise might have disappeared into the annals of schlock horror, finds itself in the realm of artistry.