Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 10

Excision (2012)
As a genre fan, you tend to know what you like. When festival buzz on “Excision” first started to build earlier this year, I immediately realized I would love this film. A deeply unglamorous story about a disaffected high school girl with an obsession with blood and surgery? Surreal, gory asides? Hilarious if sick humor? A supporting cast that front-loads with cult icons like John Waters, Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise, and Traci Lords? A lead female performance receiving fantastic reviews? That sounds a lot like “May,” “Ginger Snaps,” “Sick Girl,” “Teeth,” “The Woman,” and every other indie horror film of the last decade or so that I’ve loved. And, holy shit, its set in a high school? Give me an address because I need to know where to send my love letters.

On first viewing, I don’t totally love “Excision.” Which is to say that about 97% percent of it is absolutely brilliant. AnnaLyn McCord, best known for pretty girl turns on undistinguished programs like “90210,” uglies it up phenomenally as Pauline, a very twisted girl whose head is the primary setting for the next eighty-one minutes. Pauline’s erotic fantasies involve dismemberment, cutting into other bodies, and lots and lots of blood. In her dreams, she’s a pale, blonde queen ruling over legions of dole-eyed minions in antiseptic hospital rooms. In real life, she’s a gawky, pimply, greasy-haired teen. Her social encounters are so blunt that describing her as “awkward” doesn’t really do it justice. (Best example: When faced with the opportunity to make friends with another outsider, she immediately offends the other girl.) Her mother, played by Traci Lords of all people, is a frigid ice bitch, a self-described “Good Catholic” obsessed with outward appearances. Her dad, though willing to help, is whipped by mom. Pauline’s little sister suffers from cystic fibrosis and is the better loved sibling. Once Pauline’s surgical obsession comes to light, it’s not too hard to figure out where this is going. But the ride is everything.

The movie is frequently hilarious and possesses a fresh, energetic spirit. The movie has no fear of bodily fluids and everything from vomit to menstrual blood is vividly displayed. The audience is privy to Pauline’s prayers, which gives us a good view into her irrelevant, deeply antisocial world-view. She looses her virginity in the most unsentimental way possible, dominating the nervous young boy, at school a stub, totally in bed. When bullied by a pair of girls, Pauline marches into the hallways, arms swinging back and forth stiffly, punk rock blaring on the soundtrack, slams the girls’ heads into their lockers, and walks out into the sunlight, arms raised triumphantly. She grosses out her teachers and baffles the school’s politically conservative principal. (McDowell and Wise, respectively.) In a more conventional film, Pauline would be a Ferris Bueller-ian spitfire, the kind of film outsider real outsiders look up too. But “Excision” makes no illusions about its protagonist. Our girl offhandedly considers getting an abortion, sniffs her bloody tampons, pukes on people, and forces her sickness on everyone around her. She’s a self-obsessed teenager with some very sick self-obsessions. Funny and likable as Pauline is, there’s no mistaking her for cool, hip, healthy, or sane.

Most of the film is focused on her relationship with her family. Her little sister appears to be the one other human being she actually likes. A warm scene of the two of them talking in front of the couch displays this best. I think the movie’s main emotional thrust, however, is her relationship with mother. Lords, fully committed to her shrieking Mother of Order image, is hard to love. Lynn’s psychosis can be squarely laid at her mom’s feet. It’s commonly accepted that teens act out because they desire attention from authority figures, acceptance, understanding. Maybe that’s just how high of a mountain Pauline has to climb, that her extreme actions are all a cry for help for a distant, emotionally abusive mother. Maybe not. I’m still turning it over in my head.

And the ending. Most of “Excision” is a very sick, extremely bloody, dark comedy. The finale is a gut-punch. It carries the character’s obsessions to their natural conclusion, but is still extremely sad and unsettling. Once we reach that point, the movie ends, not giving us time to absorb how all of this impacts our characters. Which is why I don’t totally love the movie. At only 81 minutes, it’s very short. I would have gladly spent some more time in Pauline’s head, if it meant getting more of an understanding of her life and the world around her.

Still, in many ways, this movie was made for me. McCord gives a fantastic performance. The movie is incredibly energetic and original. The visual presentation is crisp. This is a first day purchase. (October 16th!) I suspect repeat viewings will make me totally love this but, for now, I’ll err on the safe side and give it a [8/10]. Don’t be shocked if that grade goes up in a few months.

The Invisible Ray (1936)
Despite owning The Bela Lugosi Collection DVD from the day it came out, I honestly don’t think I’ve seen this film before. If I have, I’ve forgotten almost everything about in the intervening years. As it is, it’s a pretty fun sci-fi/horror hybrid. The movie has a fantastically gothic opening, with a group of scientists, Bela Lugosi among them, gathering in an old castle on a dark and stormy night. Using his fancy telescope machine, Boris Karloff shows his audience the history of an asteroid hitting Earth, by reflecting rays off of Andromeda. (Is that possible? It doesn’t seem possible.) It’s hard to go wrong with Karloff narrating over a series of surreal, astral images. The gist of this really cool montage? There’s a new element somewhere in the wilds of Africa.

In the first of two major location changes, the scientists pack and head for the jungle. After some moderately racist scenes of African natives, Karloff finds the asteroid and immediately turns this fantastic new element into a death ray. Also, he becomes poisoned with the new element’s radiation and now glows in the dark and kill things with a touch. His fellow scientists basically run off with Karloff’s discovery, though they still technically credit him. He’s still pretty pissed-off. Also, his much-younger wife is in love with another guy. That’s a lot of set-up, isn’t it? I thought so too. “The Invisible Ray” is a half-an-hour in before we finally get to the movie’s main point. It’s not exactly a problem, as the movie is actually well paced. But still, as far as revenge quest premise go, it’s a bit convoluted. In the second location shift, the action heads to Paris and Karloff can get down to the business of killing those who have wrong him with his brand new radiation powers. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to screw over the guy who can kill with a touch.

The main pleasure of “The Invisible Ray” is seeing Karloff play an over-the-top villain. There’s some excuse about the radiation affecting his sanity but even before them he seems a little obsessive. Having the great actor scream about “Thieves!” is sort of awesome. The second half is exciting enough and there are several nice touches. An eradiated hand-print appears on the skin of each victim. Karloff destroys one of six statues at a near-by church after claiming a victim. Lugosi discovers the identity of the killer with a especially ridiculous, but fun!, method. Bela does well in another nice guy part. The ending rolls around in an unexpected manner. “The Invisible Ray” maybe demands a little more from viewers as far as plot mechanics go, but it’s a satisfying thriller that drawls its audience in early and keeps their attention. [7/10] 

Contains no actual death or wax museums
Night Key (1937)
Also not a horror film. Goddamn it. It’s sort of weird to see Karloff playing a normal middle-age guy one year before in “The Invisible Ray,” and then see him as what was the first of many old man parts the next year in this film. “Night Key” is a light-weight crime thriller with heavy comedic vibes and a vaguely sci-fi MacGuffin. Karloff plays the inventor of security systems who has spent fifteen years perfecting a new device, with the goal of selling it to a security company for big bucks, so he and his daughter can be set for life. Instead, the security company decides to sit on the patent. Karloff, teaming with a petty thief, decides to use his master key to cause a series of mischievous break-ins, as revenge. Naturally, things get complicated and a crime boss blackmails Karloff into using his key for real bank robberies.

“Night Key” rolls along at a decent pace. Karloff is as good as ever, playing a character who comes off as extremely naïve at times. He has good chemistry with Jean Rogers, as his daughter. She gets a love interest in the form of a cop, Warren Hull. The romance isn’t well developed but Hull is nice enough. Hobart Cavanaugh as Petty Louie, the thief Boris teams with, provides most of the movie’s humor, especially his confusion at his partner’s good-nature pranks. Alan Baxter is the serious villain of the film, a monotone-voiced, appropriately threatening crime boss. You won’t loose too much during the 67 minutes it takes to watch “Night Key,” even if you could maybe use that time better, especially if you’re looking for a horror movie. [6.5/10]

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