How SUSPIRIA Gave Me My First Real Look at Strong Women in Horror Cinema

The first time I rented Suspiria I was 13 years old. I lived in Hackney in North London and there was one “alternative” video store which had an unbelievable selection of foreign, low budget, and indie movies for my burgeoning film obsession. At that point my biggest passion was horror. My dad had an old VHS of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was banned in the U.K. until 1999. I’d laid eyes on it at age 10 (when it was still technically illegal) and had been hooked ever since.

By age 13, I was looking for something particular from the horror genre. Namely: women who did something other than scream, run up stairs, and die. I’d begun to find some semblance of strong women in the final girls of the ’80s with movies like Black Christmas, Halloween, and House on Sorority Row, though I quickly exhausted the classic slasher movies that were available to me before the days of file sharing and streaming. Blaxploitation horror was next, with movies like Ganja & Hess and Scream Blacula Scream starring the radical Pam Grier. Focused on strong, powerful women, these incredible films were still impossibly hard to find. So I scoured every film book, old copy of Fangoria, or forum for suggestions of other horror movies that centered around women.

Then I found Suspiria, Dario Argento’s seminal giallo classic, steeped a sensuality and severity I could barely grasp as a young teen. I’d discovered the movie when reading an old book of film reviews; the detailed description of its iconic opening had me hooked. For me, this film was a revelation. Women were everywhere in it, not only as victims but as heroes, villains, and saviors. Gone was the ever present danger of hulking masculinity and here was a more ancient (and honestly just as tropey–and in hindsight problematic) evil: witches. After years of seeing only supernaturally enhanced men killing slight teenage women, this film filled with women felt radical. I fell in love with it instantly.

My grandparents lived in the shadow of Pendle Hill, the site of one of the most notorious and well documented witch trials of all time. So even as a child I was well aware of the brutal reality of witch hunts and–though I didn’t have the language for it at the time–the way that accusations of witchcraft had been used through the centuries to oppress women. Yet in pop culture we often find that these characters are some of the first well defined strong women that we come into contact with, whether that be Ursula from The Little Mermaid, the teen quartet that makes up The Craft, or the women of the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy in Suspiria itself.

With Suspiria, Argento subverted what audiences thought horror could be, creating a beautiful and terrifying nightmare in the guise of a Grimms’ fairy tale. The film was lavish where American horror was often sparse, set in the midst of the sprawling forests of Germany and far away from the sun-beaten suburbs of American slasher movies. Even the school itself seems to be alive, the walls arterial red and each of the women inside it a part of this greater living thing that they seemed unable to escape.

It’s not only the visual landscape of Suspiria that was groundbreaking but the way that Argento presented his female protagonists. Even in the surreal and strange world that he crafts, there are a number of different kinds of women, straying from the stiff archetypes that horror usually slots us into. The film’s main protagonist, Suzy Bannion, is far from the damsel in distress, though she doesn’t comfortably fit into the final girl mold either. She’s almost more of a proto-Ripley, a young woman thrown into a situation she can barely comprehend, and who has no choice but to survive.

For so long women in horror had been nothing but sexy cannon fodder, often dying without having earned one defining personality trait. Yet in Suspiria, even the coven’s first victim, who dies within the opening five minutes, is shown to have friends and a life outside of the place that eventually kills her. Just this small display of women as not mere victims of their circumstance but whole people with lives completely separate to it was radical.

Though the film portrays its central coven as the villains of the piece–who become more and more pervasive, slowly driving Suzy into a paranoid breakdown that we as the viewers viscerally experience with her–when I was young I always read the American Suzy as an outsider who interrupted and destroyed what had been a thriving female-led community. As women watching horror we often find ourselves in the strangest places, and for me the sisterhood and solidarity of the coven was it. Argento’s film gave me the space to interpret the story as I needed to, and though I understood it as horror story, it was one with depth, beauty, and a violent complexity that’s kept it with me to this day.

I’m certainly not the only one on whom Suspiria had a huge impact. It’s arguably one of the most influential movies of the ’70s Italian horror movement. With later watches I started to see the influence on the slasher flicks I’d loved so much. Suzy is one of the earlier iterations of a final girl, and films like Halloween took heavily from Argento’s playbook. Though strikingly different visually, Carpenter’s use of soundtrack and noise to create discord would surely not exist in the same way without Goblin’s unforgettable Suspiria soundtrack and the movie’s unforgettable foley work. The sustained shots which created the supernatural killer’s P.O.V. became standard in movies such as Friday the 13th, and some slashers like The House on Sorority Row even used colored gel filters to evoke a giallo look.

Suspiria was a huge influence on me as an artist, writer and horror fan, on its 40th anniversary I’ll be revisiting it, will you?

Images: Produzioni Atlas Consorziate

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