The Final Girls Club posts on the 1st, 3rd and 4th Monday of the month. It aims to take an analytical and retrospective look at female-led horror cinema and how these films hold up in the context of current issues surrounding gender, sexuality and politics.
Writer-director Richard Bates Jr. said the biggest influences for Excision are David Cronenberg, famous for his body horror, and John Hughes, known for his coming-of-age films. There’s also Todd Solondz, who wrote and directed Welcome to the Dollhouse, a dark comedy which follows the bizarre coming-of-age antics of its central character, Dawn (Heather Matarazzo), a shy, unattractive, and unpopular 11-year-old. Bates Jr. combines these influences flawlessly in Excision, while still managing to make the film completely his own. Teen outcasts Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) is obsessed with blood, necrophilia, and surgical equipment, which creates effective body horror, but she also sinks into her own adolescent drama, all with an edge of dark comedy. What is a teenage girl’s life, after all, if not a dark coming-of-age body horror?
In an interview with Den of Geek, Bates Jr. said he makes films that would’ve had a profound impact on him as a teenager. “When I think of my ideal audience, […] I think of a middle school audience, because there are kids that need help. They have needs and desires, but they have no control over their lives. The only way they can experience anything outside of their parents’ world is through movies. It’s really all you have at that age. You have no experience.” Bates Jr. expertly explores teen angst and adversity with plenty of gore and a delicious dark sense of humour. His ability to relate to teenagers in this way while providing an effective and entertaining escape for them is part of what makes him stand out as a modern horror filmmaker. He added, “I’m really trying to make movies for teenagers, giving them that experience and possibly some sort of positive message about being themselves.” Excision really shines at this as Bates Jr.’s characters, no matter how odd or unusual, are always written to be undeniably themselves.
Pauline has greasy hair, typical teen acne, and bad posture. Her unflattering boxy clothing and unkempt appearance allow her to resemble someone you might find seeking treatment in a mental hospital. Personality-wise, she is assertive, abrasive, and dreams of becoming a world-class surgeon with unwavering confidence. She is awkward, still, but is beyond the stereotypes you’d find in a film like Hughes’ The Breakfast Club. Being bullied at school doesn’t stop her from asking bizarre questions in class, such as if you can get an STD from a dead person. She embraces her weird and disturbed nature entirely; she doesn’t seek the approval of her peers and she does and says the things we wish we had the guts to. There are many layers to Pauline’s uniquely fleshed out character, but deep down she is a broken teenage girl.
Coming from a strict religious background, Pauline is a social outcast even within her own family, with her mother, Phyllis (a noteworthy performance by Traci Lords), admitting that she “isn’t easy to love.” Her younger sister, Grace (Ariel Winter), however, is deemed socially acceptable, but she can’t participate in the high society that her mother wants her to experience because she has cystic fibrosis. Phyllis getting Pauline to attend cotillion classes isn’t what either of them expected — she stands out like a sore thumb, but Pauline always tries to make the best of a shitty situation, to the dismay of her mother. To make matters worse, Pauline’s father, Bob (Roger Bart), remains passive. His attempts to sympathise with his daughters often fall flat because he doesn’t stand up for them or himself, which only facilitates Phyllis’ controlling nature andher constant clashing with Pauline. Their family is completely dysfunctional as they are not in sync with one another.
For how well Pauline seems to handle adversity at times, she is very lonely. Feeling like an outsider in your own family is something many teenage girls can relate to, particularly in addition to society’s judgment of girls and women who don’t fit the norm. Pauline is judged by her own mother for not being feminine or proper enough, nor are her needs and interests catered to. With Bates Jr.’s personal history with depression and his dark, witty humour, he was able to take Pauline’s disturbed mental state and have fun with it in a way that appeals to horror fans, but also comforts those who see themselves in her character. Pauline regularly uses sarcasm and dark humour as a coping mechanism — something most of us can relate to. At one point, Phyllis calls Pauline a sociopath and Pauline responds with, “Solely on the definition, I don’t know a teenager who doesn’t profile as a sociopath.” It’s an amusing line, but it also offers comfort to those who face judgement not only from their peers, but from adults such as parents and teachers, just for being themselves.
Due to her lack of friends and strained familial relationships, Pauline has a disrupted sense of belonging. She resorts to praying to a God she doesn’t believe in just to have someone to talk to. The irony isn’t lost on her, though, which creates more humorous yet realistic dialogue for a teenager: “I know I don’t believe in you, so you’re totally justified if you choose to ignore me.” Phyllis never tries to get Pauline any proper support for her unravelling mental problems either, and instead forces her to see their local priest (John Waters).
Excision features a lot of strong body horror imagery, such as blood, gore, and nude corpses, which we mostly get to see through Pauline’s psychosexual fantasies — perhaps a form of escapism for her. Her fixation on blood is depicted many scenes which highlights her overall interests and personality: she practises surgery on a dead bird before licking its dripping blood from her hand; she carves a cross into her forearm and admires her own craftsmanship; and she bathes in baths of blood in her dreams, like a modern-day Elizabeth Bathory, often masturbating to the other morbid content she finds herself drawn to. In one scene, Pauline has a dream where she callously pulls a bloody foetus out of her vagina, and hands it to a menacing doctor who throws it into a furnace and watches it burn manically. Pauline may express herself like no ordinary teen, but that doesn’t stop her from being preoccupied with the things that often plague girls and women. Excision embraces the teenage girl by celebrating intrinsic and often taboo female experiences, such as period sex, self-harm, fear of pregnancy and abortion, female desire and masturbation, and plastic surgery considerations due to socialised self-hatred.
Pauline gets to indulge in her period sex fantasy when she has sex for the first time with Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), the popular girl’s boyfriend. While it’s a fetish for Pauline, this scene also helps to normalise and provide representation for period sex in general, as it’s still considered taboo and disgusting. It’s refreshing to see on-screen, especially from a male director, in a rather tasteful way. It’s depicted with awkwardness and realism, which contrasts with the heightened visuals when the gaze switches to Pauline’s psychosexyal desire. In these visions, Pauline looks more stereotypically acceptable: sexy and in control. Once Adam realises Pauline is on her period, he runs to the bathroom in horror with period blood all around his mouth. This scene will always be highly entertaining — a small “fuck you” to the men who have overreacted to a woman’s period and made her feel gross. Pauline, however, thought nothing of it. She used Adam for her own pleasure, providing absolutely no consideration for his, which is a welcoming change.
Excision makes you wonder how things might have turned out for Pauline had she gotten the psychological help she needed, even if it was just baseline support from her family. At the end, Pauline’s disturbed nature, obsession with the macabre, and her desire to both save Grace (whose cystic fibrosis had worsened) and please her mother all collide. Having shaved her head and set up some equipment in the garage, Pauline alludes to new beginnings as she ends up performing a lung transplant between Grace and their bratty neighbour who once declined to jump rope with Pauline because she’s weird. When Phyllis walks in and sees what she’s done, Pauline is visibly proud of herself — euphoric, even. Right to the very end, she is unapologetically herself. She thinks she has done the right thing, but her mother is understandably horrified. However, in these closing moments, the pair of them hug, which is actually the first time we see them connect in that way during the film’s entire runtime. It ends with Lords’ bloodcurdling scream as they embrace and the screen cuts to black.
Underneath Pauline’s tough exterior, she wanted nothing more than to be accepted by her mother and help her sister, whom she cares for deeply, while proving that she is worthy of being loved for being herself. Grace was perhaps the only person who truly accepted Pauline for who she is and also defended her, so this was a grandeur act of thanks. Unfortunately, it was a highly questionable and disturbing gesture, but actions speak louder than words and, for Pauline, it was the only way she would be seen and heard for who she is.
by Toni Stanger