Tuesday, October 23, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray: "Excision" bold but too proud of its own grotesqueries


Excision (2012) 
81 min., not rated.

If John Waters, the Pope of Trash, calls your script "weird" (and co-stars), it must be really out-there. That's the case with writer-director Richard Bates Jr.'s "Excision," expanded into a feature from his 2008 short under the same name. This boldly perverse, outright disturbing, and twistedly sick horror-comedy-drama could be the aborted love child of David Cronenberg, Todd Solondz, and Waters himself, but like how a parent puts a child's test on the fridge, the film seems awfully proud of how repulsive and grotesque it can be. 

Without make-up or air-brush magic, TV's "90210" bombshell AnnaLynne McCord loses her fierce Elizabeth Berkley/Denise Richards-y looks to transform into Pauline. The 18-year-old high school student is just your average outcast: she's socially inept with acne and a cold sore forming on her lip…and she's mentally disturbed. Disappointing her controlling Christian mother, Phyllis (Traci Lords), and repelling her sexually active peers, Pauline only feels at home in her own world where she fantasizes about anatomy. She also wants to lose her virginity (on her period) and has no problem picking out the guy (Jeremy Sumpter) and telling him what she wants. With her little sister Grace ("Modern Family's" Ariel Winter) suffering from cystic fibrosis and in need of a lung transplant, how long will it be until delusional Pauline acts out her self-taught, do-it-yourself surgical fantasy? 

Writer-director Richard Bates Jr. comes up with a fresh enough angle for this disturbed-teen formula: Pauline is an outcast without really being a victim, nor is she a succubus à la "Jennifer's Body." She has a scary amount of self-confidence, telling the class bitch that she fears of getting an STD just by being in the same locker room as her, but it's very hard to relate to such a certifiable whack-job as Pauline. The first-time filmmaker handles the blackly comic tone well, pushes the envelope to the nth degree with abandon, and showcases a stylish visual sense. The art direction and bizarrely erotic/gory imagery are right out of an Elizabeth Bathory-styled Marilyn Manson video for Pauline's fetishistic, psychosexual dreams, which have blonde, drop-dead gorgeous McCord straddling corpses, sliding into a bathtub full of blood, and performing her own abortion. It's these nightmarish, garishly toned interludes that serve up the real gross-outs and emphasize the obvious point that Pauline needs to be lobotomized and/or locked up for good. 


Acting with a lantern jaw and sporting some greasy dark hair and untrimmed eyebrows, the de-glammed McCord has a lot of guts in taking on this sociopathic, totally unhinged anti-heroine. One can't imagine many other actresses signing on to play a character that sniffs a used tampon and licks the blood of a dissected bird, but McCord doesn't show a shred of vanity. Though this is being sold as McCord's coming-out as an actress, Lords gives the more impressive performance. What could have been played as one-dimensional and shrill, Lords is more accomplished as an actress than one would expect. Sure, she breaks her husband's balls, constantly dotes Grace but criticizes Pauline, and signs both daughters up for a cotillion class, but fears that she's becoming her own mother. (Roger Bart, as the emasculated dad, mostly shows up at meals but has little to do with the story.) Some other reputable faces show up in amusing supporting parts that basically amount to extended cameos: John Waters plays a reverend (isn't that an oxymoron?) that acts as Pauline's would-be psychiatrist; Marlee Matlin is funny without speaking a word as a school teacher; Ray Wise, as the high school principal, gets one subtle laugh with a George W. Bush photo in his office; and Malcolm McDowell shows up as the algebra teacher who has had it with Pauline. 


It's hard for a film to shock these days, especially when torture is tirelessly palmed off as horror, but "Excision" does just that in spades. Then again, some of the queasier moments border on immature bad taste, and Bates' first feature doesn't match the quality of Lucky McKee's 2003 disturbing and weirdly poignant masterwork "May," also a feature debut. While that film had more of an emotional center and left one feeling equally disturbed and heartbroken for its friendless title character (who stole body parts to sew together her own friend), this Grand Guignol just wants to get off on sex and blood (the raison d'être), sometimes at the same time, that it leaves a bitter aftertaste after its preordained conclusion. The bloody innards on display are truly unnerving, as well as Pauline's delusion that she's capable of performing surgery and means well. "Excision" prides itself on being nasty, which is fine if there's more beneath the surface, but too often does it just feel like a horror-flick geek going nuts with his canvas. The easily squeamish and those with a low threshold for the bizarro are advised to stay far, far away.

Grade: C +

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