The likability of female characters is one of the most over-discussed questions in film discourse, but in Richard Bates’ Excision, he makes a hard and fast distinction that our protagonist Pauline is not going to be the typical final girl in horror, and she won’t ever be likable.
Obsessed with sex, death, and especially blood, Pauline (AnnaLynn McCord, playing against type to great success) is unpopular in high school not only for her unusual interests, but because she’s an ugly duckling, and places no importance on personal hygiene. Pauline is the sort of unkempt that borders on masochistic, and it’s a rare thing to see a female character who revels so fully in her lack of traditional beauty or desire to fit in among her female peers. She also faces extreme stress at home as her middle-class parents focus on her saintly younger sister (Ariel Winter) who’s dying of cystic fibrosis. Pauline develops two selves to deal with the limitations and frustrations of her real life — in her fantasies, she’s beautiful, dominant, and often covered in blood, while the real Pauline can barely be bothered to brush her hair or speak up in class.
Pauline’s retreat into her vivid interior life provides the film with its most memorable sequences, as we see her baroque, bloody fantasies of sex, worship, and power — these scenes are truly gorgeous (though very NSFW) and make Excision stand apart from many of its independent horror peers. Like many other female misfits, reality will never be as good as the fantasy life Pauline is able to conjure. But, these fantasies give Pauline confidence boost in her own life, and she eventually convinces the school’s hunk, Adam, to take her virginity. Bates subverts any traditional take on this scene by including menstrual blood and oral sex as major factors. He also uses this scene to explore male repulsion at the idea of period sex only when it’s reflected back to them, not during the actual act, which mirrors how Adam feels about sleeping with Pauline overall — he’s happy to do it if it’s kept a secret, but if other folks find out they’ve slept together, he vehemently denies his participation in the act.
This rendezvous destroys any reputation Pauline had at school, and reality slips further from her grasp as her focus on her fantasies begins to dominate her life. Pauline decides to help her sister the only way she can: amateur surgery! The film’s conclusion is grotesque and unavoidable, and even with the inevitability of the film’s final moments, it’s still fascinating to watch Pauline reach her ultimate character destination. And even if her attempt a DIY lung transplant is horrifically miscalculated, Pauline, who struggles to feel empathy for anyone throughout the film, still sees it as the most loving thing she can do for her sister. Bates isn’t afraid to make Pauline foul, misguided, and morbid, which is a bold choice not only in mainstream film as a whole, but especially in horror when a woman’s purity often ends up saving her life. Excision is a beautifully bloody character study that eschews all notions of female likability in order to create an incredibly memorable female horror protagonist.