‘Excision’ (2012) Was the Midnight Sundance Showing That Sent Audiences Home with Bloody Tampons

On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age. 

First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing. 

Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.

The Pitch: Cold Sore Terrorism, Period Sex, and John Waters as Your Youth Pastor? Nice Work, Pauline!

It’s my understanding that the tampons were handmade.

Unfortunately, I was unable to hunt down the contact information for “Excision” writer/director Richard Bates Jr. to confirm that fact in time for this column’s ceremonial 11:59pm publication. (Cut me some slack; it’s festival season!) But what little information I could uncover about his debut film’s 2012 Sundance premiere — a storied screening that took place as part of that year’s Park City at Midnight lineup — there is sufficient reason to believe that Bates arrived in Utah armed with dozens of fake bloody tampons he made to give the press and his peers.

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“It’s a very ‘industry’ festival and you don’t get audiences cheering and jeering and reacting. The goal of the film is to take you through every emotion, from comedy to horror to tragedy, and everyone at the Sundance audience is kind of dry,” the filmmaker explained in a 2016 interview for Empire. “I made bloody tampons for everyone, which I guess was fairly controversial. I tried to do whatever I could to get everyone in the spirit of the movie and get involved with it.”

As reported, the event and stunt sound like they were something of a bust; although the night did launch Bates’ career as a weirdo cult auteur and the gross-out party favors made plenty of headlines (including at IndieWire!). A later, sold-out Fantasia screening of 800 fans proved more successful, with Bates describing it as “the greatest night of my fucking life” in the same interview. It’s unclear if he handed out more DIY sanitary products on that occasion, but the ever-so-slightly depraved visionary would have certainly faced a more grateful crowd in Canada.

From cold sore terrorism to John Waters as a youth pastor, this midnight movie pulls out a gory, girlhood shocker as chunky as mid-cycle period blood. (Hey, I don’t make uteruses; I just compare things to them.) AnnaLynne McCord, post “Nip/Tuck” and nearing the end of “90210,” stars as Pauline: a crusty outcast with a fondness for dissecting dead things and a persistent fantasy of losing her virginity while menstruating. Her mother (Traci Lords, legendary in adult entertainment) is overbearing, while her father (Roger Bart, “Hostel II”) is almost negligently useless.

Pauline’s sweet sister Grace — Ariel Winter in a part that breathes morbid new meaning into the idea of so-called “modern family”— has advanced cystic fibrosis. The sisters are mostly close, but the warring stressors of Pauline’s singular strangeness and Grace’s illness result in a queasy tension that plagues the household. A kind of gender-swapped “Donnie Darko,” minus the supernatural powers and giant bunny rabbit, “Excision” sees our snarky antihero slide from a pitch-black comedy about domestic discontent into a tragic dramedy about growing up. Finally, it reveals itself as a baffling horror, as opaque as the teal tile framing Pauline’s increasingly violent fantasies. (It’s also oddly reminiscent of “My Sister’s Keeper”? No Alec Baldwin stand-in though, and that’s for the best.)

With supporting performances from Marlee Matlin, Malcom McDowell, and Matthew Gray Gubler (shout out “Criminal Minds” hive!), there are enough oddities in this bizarre character study to recommend “Excision” as a text on its own. But streaming it at home on a quiet night in Los Angeles, while the real festival season picks up a mere 700 miles away (I! Could! Still! Make! It!), I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for myself. Then, I started wondering about those under-appreciated tampons. What did Bates use for the blood? How did he pack them for his trip on the plane? Did he buy real ones in bulk, or craft each one out of tissue and string? Were the tampons presented before the screening or after it? Did people just…pick them up?

Some midnights you feel the streaming age more than others, and on this Friday night in January, I’m relating to Pauline more than I’d like. There’s an ephemeral nature to great movie screenings. No one will ever be in those rooms watching “Excision” like that again, for good and for bad. I’m pained to think I missed seeing pearl-clutching Sundance goers angrily shuffling out the door as Pauline dreamed of ripping out a girl’s tongue, and even more sad to think there was once a packed room full of freaks who live for that shit.

Spectacularly flawed but peculiar enough to pique your interest, Bates’ mutating film isn’t for everyone, period. But if a free used tampon sounds like a cinephilic memento worth having to you (and you’re maybe, just maybe, fantasizing a little teeny-tiny bit about the screenings taking place in Park City tonight), then give this twisted tale about an aspiring surgeon with a heart of…something…a try. It’s free with ads on Tubi right now, and there’s no reason to miss out on all the fun. —AF

The Aftermath: The Hegelian Wheel of Midnight Movie Fandom Waits for No Man

When Foreman and I launched this hallowed column last summer, our initial thesis rested on the idea that streaming had fundamentally changed the concept of midnight movies. The idea was that our increasingly isolated media consumption habits had shifted midnight movie culture to the internet, and certain films that relied on group viewing experiences would eventually lose their cult status. 

After watching “Excision” alone on my laptop, I thought about our first column and walked away thinking, “We fucking nailed that one.” 

I have no major grievances with this movie, but I didn’t find it particularly memorable either. It struck me as a grab bag of common midnight movie themes — suburban malaise that turns darkly sinister, misunderstood women who reach their breaking points, sexual awakenings, and reclaiming female bodily functions that were once written off as taboo — that were competently assembled despite the lack of a real idea to connect them. Bates deserves props for his execution; the dream sequences had some immaculate shots and even the scenes taking place in reality felt deeply off. But you can only assemble so many cool images without giving me a reason to care before you lose me for good. 

That said, I have no doubt that a 2012 version of me who attended the Sundance midnight screening in a parallel universe would have felt differently. Even if you control for the performance art theatrics (which, for the record, I had never heard about until today but think are legendary nonetheless), sometimes films just hit at the right cultural moment. And if you miss that, there’s really no way to recreate it. 

I’m a big proponent of legacy festivals like Sundance adding midnight sections to their programs, and events like the premiere of “Excision” are pretty much the exact result that programmers hope for when they book films like this. But it’s worth remembering that “midnight movie” is a term that’s entirely context dependent, because it applies to films that exist firmly outside the current cultural milieu. Once society’s parameters for acceptable art expand, some films are inevitably going to lose that status. 

I think that’s exactly what we have on our hands here. “Excision” was radical by 2012 standards, but could easily be confused for any run-of-the-mill A24 knockoff horror flick in 2024. And that’s cool! The midnight movies we love this year might be safe in a decade too. That’s all the more reason to make sure you don’t miss the screenings while you have the chance. —CZ

Those brave enough to join in on the fun can stream “Excision” for free with ads on Tubi. IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…

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