Love him or loathe him (or somewhere in between), Dario Argento is the king of giallo, and 1977’s Suspiria remains his masterpiece — an operatic, surreal, feverish exercise, the closest cinema has come to capturing a nightmare on film. Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise) stars as Suzy Bannion, an American ballet student enrolled at a prestigious German dance school. After several students are brutally murdered, Suzy suspects there’s something supernatural afoot within the walls of Tanz Academy — specifically, witchcraft.
Arguably most famous for its lavish color schemes and unsettling cacophonous score, Suspiria is a tricky one when it comes to women. First, the good.
It has one of the most female-dominated and undeniably female-centric casts in horror history. Only three men appear, in cameo-sized parts, and none have any bearing whatsoever on the plot. The heroes, villains, victims, and fighters are all women. Pat Hingle (Eva Axén) sets the plot in motion. Sara (Stefania Casini) pushes it forward. Madame Blanc (the effortlessly magnificent Joan Bennett) attempts to alter it. Suzy finishes it. Everything revolves around the power of a collection of united women — the coven, who use their powers for evil, and the student body, who pass along knowledge to one another as a means of survival. The same way the witches draw their powers from a queen, the friendships between the students are literally life and death. Pat gives knowledge to Sara, who gives knowledge to Suzy, and Suzy uses that knowledge to emerge unscathed. When murders occur, they’re cued by solitude: Pat dies alone in a bathroom, separated from her friend by a locked door, and Sara dies alone outside Suzy’s room after Suzy passes out. Suzy may very well have still succeeded on her own, but the lineage of a female support system that precedes her, and involves her, and believes her, is undeniably tied to her survival.
Suzy herself may meet all the Final Girl checkmarks to a T, but she’s a spectacular one — stubborn, inquisitive, tuned in to the oddities and proactively searching for answers. She’s the first one to realize the witches don’t leave the building every night, as Sara believes, but stay inside, and she does so by listening to the directional sound of their footsteps. (Who does that?!) Then she retraces those steps to their lair by counting how many footfalls she hears. She solves the overarching mystery, kills an ancient evil personified in the queen witch, and brings down the entire coven, walking away from the building with a radiant smile. Only once does she resort to violence, and that’s out of necessity (I didn’t know stabbing a witch’s invisible spirit is how you kill one, but okay); everything else is the weapon of her tenacious intelligence.
Every character with power and agency is a woman. Men are an afterthought, narrative props. Even the victims who die in gory technicolor are competent, resolved, resourceful fighters. In a conversation with Madame Blanc, Suzy’s mother is spoken of with reverence and respect, not her father; the maternal line matters. (The female cast includes varying ages and sizes, too, although the inclusivity stops there.)
Now the bad. Or, at least, the ill-advised.
Argento deliberately crafted a modern fairy tale with Suspiria: the bright reds, whites, and blues of the sets were inspired by Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Suzy is the naive, waifish, doe-eyed innocent tormented by an evil witch. That choice combined with thinly drawn characters (sheer artistry is prioritized over the script) leads to a very traditional madonna/whore, virgin/crone dichotomy that isn’t subverted or examined. In a way, I get it — Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi are sticking to the established archetypes for a reason. And in a cast that’s 99% women, some will be the heroes and some will be the villains for the necessity of dramatic tension. I have no issue with female villains; in fact, I crave more of them. I want women to personify the exact same spectrum of diverse roles allowed to men: hero, antihero, villain, all the shades and characteristics in between. But the lines of good girl/bad girl are so stereotypically drawn here. The implicit suggestion that powerful women, or women who want power and wealth, are evil, is problematic enough I shouldn’t need to explain why. There could easily have been some quiet subversion at work without sacrificing the appropriate plot beats and style choices (see: Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak).
There’s also the violence. None of the women are sexualized, but their bodies are still fetishized for the sake of glamorized brutality. The victims are violated and penetrated with phallic objects — knives, glass shards, a bed of razor wire. Argento has been criticized in the past for his onscreen violence toward women, and rather famously said:
“I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man. I certainly don’t have to justify myself to anyone about this.”
Uh. Cool story, bro. No.
It’s worth noting one protracted death out of three is a man, and it’s nausea-inducing, but that doesn’t balance the two women. In fact, a good deal of the violence against the man is offscreen suggestion (dog teeth tearing skin off an unseen face), whereas we subjectively watch Sara’s throat split in close-up after she writhes in agony on wire, and Pat’s murder is one of the most famously graphic in movie history. The scenes are technically proficient and horrifically frightening, but there’s no honesty about the perils of male voyeurism toward the objectified female body. Just plain old slice and dice.
So we’re left with a film where women aren’t sexualized but are still mutilated, who are proactive but also killed, who are pure innocence and pure villainy, empowered but through a man’s limited vision of empowerment. I love Suspiria, and yet. Really love it for its virtues of female friendship, legacy, belief, power, and shared knowledge, and yet. It’s an unsettling, disorienting, hypnotic rollercoaster of style, with surprisingly wonderful pros and unsurprisingly predictable cons for women in equal measure.
Women In Horror is a series examining the roles of female characters in some of the genre’s most iconic films.