Few filmmakers have the confidence to open their debut film with a sex dream involving someone vomiting blood. Even fewer of those films feature a cameo from famed exploitation filmmaker John Waters as a Catholic priest. Excision is curiously one of these films. It’s gross, gory, bizarre, and I love it. Despite its graphic sexual and violent nature, Excision provides a fascinating character study on the strange sexual desires of a teenage girl, without resorting to cheap fetishization.
Excision chronicles the life of Pauline, an unpopular high school student, who channels her unconventional sexual fantasies--many of which involve gruesome violence--through her desire to become a surgeon. She faces challenges from dwindling friendships with the other students, bullies, and a strained relationship with her mother, who believes that she can suppress her daughter’s bad behavior through strict discipline and religious counseling. After learning that her younger sister Grace will need a lung transplant to help treat her cystic fibrosis, Pauline schemes to use her burgeoning medical knowledge to perform the procedure herself.
An aspect of the film that I appreciated was how the costume design and makeup influenced the audience's perceptions of Pauline and Grace. Pauline is genuinely unattractive and in many ways resembles a typical girl her age: she has acne, bad posture, and unkempt hair and clothes. Her frumpy appearance and social awkwardness starkly contrast with the other characters in the film, especially with Grace, whose looks and personality, in the eyes of their mother, represent a model child. Grace is attractive and comfortable in her femininity, existing quietly in the background, whereas Pauline is abrasive, rude, and is unsure of her place in the world.
These external differences are strongly correlated to how each is treated by their mother. Because Grace is already perceived as beautiful, her health problems have greater legitimacy than Pauline’s mental instability. Their parents constantly coddle and tend to Grace’s needs, taking her to doctor’s appointments and sending her to special summer camps. But for Pauline, they perceive her as the odd one out, and fail to legitimize her emotions. They do not take her feelings seriously, and assume that her pattern of bad behavior is simply a sign of being a rotten child, as opposed to a cry for help from her mother’s controlling behavior.
Pauline’s physical unattractiveness is one of her many challenges illustrated in the film. It should be noted that her wanting and seeking a sexual partner at her age is not the issue here - many teenagers her age struggle to find a way to channel their desires. Pauline’s detriment is that the environment in which she experiences these fantasies is unsupportive and unyielding. Her mother wants her to just act and dress as what she sees to be a proper and disciplined Christian woman, and her peers are disgusted by the idea of her being sexually active due to her physical unattractiveness and unpopularity. It seems that Pauline was destined to fail.
I chose this movie for our weekly horror theme because while Excision is not necessarily a Halloween film, its violence and thrilling elements are fitting. I enjoy Excision because of its accurate portrayal of teenage angst. Though the nature of Pauline’s fantasies is not common by any means, her romantic and family struggles are all too real. Specifically, it illustrates a time in many teenagers’ lives where they are beset with hormones and incomprehensible emotions, but with little idea as to how to express them coherently. I highly recommend this film for anyone with an itch for a weird and disturbing film experience, and with a strong stomach for gore.