Excision & Under the Skin: Not for Beginners

[WARNING: SPOILERS AND GRAPHIC IMAGERY AHEAD…SERIOUSLY THO]

If the two names of the films I’m reviewing on their own don’t give you the creeps, then you can probably watch these movies. Maybe even WHILE you’re drinking. Maybe even without gagging!

Both try to scare off the viewer in the first fifteen minutes (or in the case of Excision, the very first scene). For a hardened horror-watcher, I felt that internal dare…the compulsion to stay with the repulsive because they are NOT GONNA BEAT ME DAMMIT.

But man, after months of phasing in slow-burn true crime documentaries and watching It’s Always Sunny reruns on repeat, I’d gotten a little soft. Do I even horror anymore?

The Beer: Portland Brewing Raise the Roost Belgian-Style Red Ale

ABV: 6.2% | IBU: 30

Portland Brewing Red

This was a perfect pre-Valentine’s day flavor. It had a spicy mulled-wine nose and a palate that briefly reminded me of conversation hearts–something sweet and citric-acidy. As often occurs with American-made Belgian styles, it was more of a parody of a Belgian than very true to style, but thankfully the hops on this were restrained enough not to completely pull it off track.

The (First) Movie: Excision; 2012

Man, I used to be able to watch anything while I was eating. But watching Excision with a bowl of broth and noodles turned bright red with homemade chili oil was not a good plan. From the first shot, watching this movie was like watching a series of blood-soaked tampons wrung out in front of me. Probably worse, tbh.

Yeah, I warned you about the graphic imagery.

AnnaLynne McCord plays Pauline, a young woman who is discovering sex for the first time…and discovering the unfortunate fact that what really gets her off is fountains of blood and dismembered human corpses. We know this because we get to see the vivid teenage fantasies that play out in her head in montage form. Hooray.

excision fantasy scene

She also has high ambitions of being a surgeon, which gives the viewer the brief impression that she might have some type of higher-than-average intelligence. That this will tell the story of a cool and collected monster who carries out her plans with precision and skill.

That impression is overwritten when we watch her give up on a math test and loudly tell her teacher, “I don’t even need math to be a surgeon.”

So no, it’s not that kind of movie either.

The way the script shifts audience sympathies violently from one character to another is, I think, the most laudable aspect of the film. Since she’s the protagonist, the viewer is called to sympathize with Pauline the most often. And it mostly works. I mean, she’s just a teenager. Her mother is controlling and humorless. Her father is oblivious. Her sister, the only person who loves her and sticks up for her, is dying of cystic fibrosis.

One heartbreaking scene shows Pauline listening at the door of her parents’ room as her mom rants about how, no matter how hard she’s tried, she finds it impossible to love Pauline. This isn’t followed by zooming in on Pauline’s hollow eyes or conniving grin. It’s followed by a scene of an inconsolable daughter weeping alone on her bathroom floor. Yikes.

Problem is, though, Pauline’s mom turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic as well, in spite of her coldness. She’s got one daughter that she can’t relate to at all and another one who is dying.

The run-of-the mill people who avoid and sometimes bully Pauline aren’t terribly hard to relate to either. Pauline is hard to like. She asks her health teacher whether or not you can get STDs from a dead body. She threatens classmates that she doesn’t like and even when she reaches out to make friends with the girl across the street, it comes off as robotic and insincere (and in light of what happens later on, probably is). You can also practically smell her b.o. through the screen.

But the director does a great job of playing on the viewer’s sense of justice and morality, swinging you to Pauline’s team, then away, and then back again until the final, horrifying sequence where you just don’t know what to think anymore.

Is it a recommendation? Meh? I guess if you’re looking to see how dark you can go. When I put this one in my DVD queue over a year ago that’s the mood I was in. The acting and writing is solid. And there’s a John Waters cameo if that tells you anything. It’s just a lot.

Second movie: Under the Skin; 2014

I was a little more prepared for this film, and it was less gritty than I expected. I also read the book a few months ago and thought I knew what I was getting into. Man was I wrong about that.It was more the emotional violence that made this one hard to watch at times.

While the novel is a pretty transparent morality tale about harvesting and eating animals, the film is more art house than Upton Sinclair. However, just because we don’t see human men shaved, corralled, and de-toothed like livestock being fattened for foie, their destruction is eerie in a completely different way.

undertheskin

Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in a stolen woman-suit (skin…she’s under it) who lures horny dudes into a black room where they become stuck in a mysterious black goo. And eventually, we find, their innards are harvested and collected in some sort of sluice.

The soundtrack does WORK in this film, notably absent in ScarJo’s most sociopathic moments: most memorably when she watches a couple drown in a violent surf and then leaves their screaming infant on the beach to die of exposure. It’s realistic enough for me to wonder how the actors who played the couple (and I think a dog also?) survived the waves in real life. The entire scene made me sick to my stomach.

When she gets back to her work of man-harvesting, though, the music seeps back in like that same black goo. And when we see how the innards are harvested, when in a flash nothing is left behind but an empty sheath of skin, there’s a hard rim-shot like a fake shooting in a high school musical. Which makes you wonder if sound is even a real thing in the context of the world we’re seeing (shudders).

Eventually, the anti-hero/ine seems to become curious about and then sympathetic to the humans she is capturing. And ultimately, that is what brings her down. Or burns her up. You know, whichever.

Bottom line: if it’s your first foray, maybe pick a different double feature.

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