Directed by Richard Bates Jr.
For his first feature film, director/writer Richard Bates Jr. has brought a fresh and distinct voice to the horror genre. Combining family drama, outsider teen comedy and highly disturbing psychosexual body horror, Excision is deliberately constructed to provoke sympathy and revulsion in equal measure. One of many surprises the film presents is an acutely realized and bravely unselfconscious central performance from AnnaLynne McCord (90210, Nip/Tuck). As Pauline, McCord plays fiercely against type, losing herself in the awkward, gangly, acne-ridden outsider role. Her body language and demeanour are uncomfortable and repulsive in a way that inspires a sense of judgemental guilt in the viewer. It's hard to imagine even the most well adjusted and inclusive of spirits warming to this self-aware oddity, and that just makes her situation even more heartbreaking. Pauline is a clever, death-obsessed high school senior dedicated to becoming a surgeon. She knows her graphic fantasies that reduce people to mere parts and fluids to play with are uncommon, to say the least, and so she sincerely asks her delusional and domineering mother (an excellent Traci Lords) to send her to a proper psychologist — a local priest played by John Waters isn't exactly ideologically equipped to discuss her particular issues with impartial compassion. Only her younger sister (Ariel Winter, Modern Family), who suffers from Cystic Fibrosis, displays the unconditional love everyone requires at least a measure of. The plot follows a carefully paced trajectory, as Pauline's fruitless search for acceptance inexorably deepens her delusions. To punctuate her descent into irrational, though well-intentioned madness, Bates Jr. gracefully constructs Pauline's bloody, body-modifying fantasies, featuring an idealized version of herself, with the disturbing visual artistry of Dario Argento working with a Magic Kingdom colour palette. Excision reflects the loss of innocence as a hypocritical failure of the status quo to have empathy for persons exploring their sense of self through unconventional means. But, ultimately, only parenting can be blamed for instilling the cocky sense of entitlement that enables the horrific acts of hubris Pauline engages in. It's a thought-provoking piece that uses uncomfortable, artful symbolism without feeling gratuitous and takes a wry, humanistic tack towards taboo proclivities and delusions of grandeur that is tender, funny and devastating. A commentary track with Bates Jr. and McCord that splits the difference between production anecdotes and level-headed discourse on the film's very personal themes is unfortunately the only special feature on an achievement whose rich layers welcome further exploration.
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