FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Oct 9, 2019

SUSPIRIA Day 9: power

As someone who has lived, laughed, and loved her way through times of great horror movies and bad, I gotta feels like we're in a bit of yet another golden age right now. Either that or genre writers and directors have been reading my secret horror movie dream diary, even though it explicitly says on the cover do NOT read.

I'm especially taken with recent films such as The VVitch, Midsommar, Thelma, and yes, Suspiria, where we see a new kind of Final Girl. The Final Girls of the past–formative genre goddesses, all–were pure survivors. Occasionally they took initiative à la boobytrap fanatic Nancy of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but more often they were simply reactive, forced to fight their way to another dawn. Regardless, it's incredible, and I am in awe! The grit they mustered in times of abject horror, the lengths they went through to overcome...sometimes they could still cleverly outmaneuver the killer with some quickly-devised scheme, and other times they were just running on instinct. Poor Sally Hardesty, surviving because of and in spite of her newly-fractured psyche. Would she ever recover from that night in the farmhouse? Texas Chain Saw Massacre's tagline "Who will survive, and what will be left of them?" was more prescient than we knew.

The women in these modern horror films–these new Final Girls–do not merely react and survive. They claim power, whether it is offered or outright taken. They forge a new path for themselves, willing to destroy whatever tries to hinder them from living their lives completely on their own terms. Sometimes they are the villains and the heroines, and not just in a Sleepaway Camp sort of way. It's not "Oh lawd, she was the killer the whole time?" It's more of a journey to self-discovery and empowerment. A woman will burn it all down, but instead of walking away she'll walk into the flames and tame them, make them hers. Nowhere is this change in motivation more evident than in a comparison of Suspiria 1977 and Suspiria 2018. Look, I'm not crazy. I revere Suzy Bannion, but let's get real. She's no Susie Bannion.

This destroy it all, take no prisoners, my place is mine empowerment fairy tale we're seeing these days, these new Final Girls, suit me just fine in our current political climate. They're role models, showing me how to behave, how to stake my place.

Quite obviously there is this, the image I pray to every night:

But today I want to talk a bit about the fact that Susie was already a fucking boss long before she ripped open her chest and showed off her new, second vagina. And I'm not framing it with respect to questions around when she knew she was Mother Suspiriorum, either. I just mean regular ol' Susie Bannion, a Mennonite farm girl in Ohio. I love all of the instances where she demonstrates how utterly unafraid she is, how supremely confident she is in herself and her abilities. It's always done subtly and quietly, often merely smirking. She doesn't care if you dare to underestimate her. She knows who she is.

The first time we see this is the first time the Company sees it. Susie is about to audition, and she asks where Madame Blanc is–actually, she doesn't call her "Madame Blanc." She calls her by her name (hi, Luca Guadagnino), Veva Blanc. Misses Tanner, Millius, and Mandel then do all they can to set Susie off-balance for this. Tanner reminds her:

"You have no formal training or references. Your insistence to audition happened to catch Madame Blanc on a good day. But you really shouldn't be here at all. Do you understand?"

Susie gives a barely audible "Mmm-hmm."

Millius and Mandel insist she audition with no music, sarcastically suggesting she keep time in her head. Susie isn't intimidated in the slightest. She takes her time getting ready, casually removing her shoes and sweatshirt.

And then she blows them away. She blows them away so hard, in fact, that Blanc feels it in another studio.

As a writer and artist, I find it incredibly inspirational that Susie showed up with "no formal training or references." How many professionally (expensively) trained, well-educated dancers have fled the Tanzgruppe building in tears after an audition gone wrong? How many of them have crumbled in the face of the matrons' intimidation tactics? Susie insists they see her even with a resumé that's probably just her name and "I've seen Volk a bunch of times." So often we're hindered–or we think we're hindered–by not having the right education, the right connections, the right fancy equipment and training, the right bank account sums. Susie defies all of those "should"s and everyone's expectations as well.

After Olga has her meltdown and storms out of the rehearsal studio, no one is willing to take her place as lead dancer in Volk. There's an uncomfortable vibe of schoolroom "oh don't call on me don't call on me" as Blanc asks a few of them. Finally, Susie says "I'll dance."

Blanc gives her the verbal equivalent of pat on the head, calling her "Sweetheart" as she tells her the piece was rehearsed for ten months before performing it. It's very condescending and "Aw, look at you, thinking you're something." Tanner takes a tougher tack, again going for straight scare tactics, telling her she'll have to dance alone so no one else gets hurt by her flailing limbs.

And Susie just:

That's another image I pray to every night. Without a word, to simply smile in the face of intimidation and what everyone assumes will be a total disaster...because she knows it won't be. A queen. A QUEEN!

We get to the dinner scene, you know the one. The one where Susie joins Blanc for some chicken wings, sex talk, and lite seduction. I'll be talking about it more in depth in an entry later this month. But there are some moments that are relevant to today's post. Some moments where Dakota Johnson fucking nails it yet again, conveying so much with so little, because so little is all the moment requires to be complete perfection.

This meeting should be everything to Susie. Your idol is so taken by your rehearsal showing that she invites you to her suite for dinner? Just the two of you? It's quickly established that while Susie does, of course, idolize Blanc, she also sees her as a peer. It's a hint of things to come, to be sure. But right now, it's another example of her complete self-assuredness. For fuck's sake, Blanc is singing Susie's praises and talking about how fascinating she is, and Susie just eats her food with her fingers, looking a bit bored as she checks out Blanc's room.

Susie nonchalantly drops that she went to New York three times to see Blanc perform; once she took a bus, twice she hitch-hiked. Such was her need, her desire. This Mennonite, making her way from the midwest anyway she could. Her demeanor conveys that it's no big deal at all.

Blanc asks–while likely assuming the answer–if she was punished for these unauthorized trips. Susie doesn't look up. She keeps eating.

"Yeah," is all she says, and it's a true moment of brilliance from Johnson. There is so much in that one word, in her inflection. Again, she conveys it was no big deal. But also, it was, and she's not going to talk about it. Think about the dream-flashback we get, where Susie's mother catches her masturbating and then burns her hand with an iron. If that was the punishment for that "sin," what did she endure for stealing away to New York the first time? It was undoubtedly brutal, unimaginable. Then Susie steals away twice more. It's likely she was even punished for her repeated trips to the library to watch Volk on video. But she didn't let any of that stop her. If anything, all the trauma of her youth motivated her.


I also love love love the emerging image we get of Susie as something of a rebellious delinquent. It's slickly revealed further in the scene where Sara and Susie break into the matrons' office to find information about Patricia. Susie is dressed in the bulky brown corduroy of a religious farm girl, but then she picks the lock on the filing cabinet with ease. Without drawing attention to herself, she quickly pilfers a lipstick from one of the matron's desk drawers. Picking locks and casual thievery? This makes us reconsider her envelope full of church money at the beginning of the film. The community didn't band together to send Susie to Berlin to fulfill her dreams. She stole the money and left. I love it so much, and I want fifty prequels about Susie Bannion's life in Ohio right now, please.

That office scene also gives us another moment of reconsideration regarding Susie, what we think we know about her versus whatever the truth is. Huller, Vendegast, and Tanner have ensorcelled the two police detectives who have come around to ask a few questions. The men are in a trance, half-naked and unmoving. The witches poke, prod, and laugh at their exposed penises. They cackle as they wave the mens' guns around. It's a truly fucked-up scene that Susie has happened upon, but she doesn't question it. She doesn't tell Sara about it. She doesn't tell anyone or say anything. Instead:

It's a funny moment in a movie that has very few funny moments. But also...what's up with you, Susie Bannion?

But back to the topic at hand, Susie's utter confidence in the face of...anything and everything.

In rehearsal, Blanc tells Susie that her jumps are severely lacking. Instead of taking instruction and trying harder, she contests it, essentially telling her idol, her instructor, that she's wrong. Susie tells the woman who choreographed Volk how and why it should be changed, how and why it would be made better. Blanc circles around Susie, giving her a proper dressing down. For much of the sequence, the camera is from Blanc's POV. Susie is belittled, literally, a tiny thing on the floor, constantly forced to turn to face Blanc (and us).

But it's that turning and eye contact that are key. Susie keeps facing Blanc, keeps facing us. She doesn't protest, but neither does she back down. She faces Blanc head on, challenging her even as Blanc circles and looms, trying to make the dancer her prey.

Susie does jump higher and higher, of course, thanks in part to abilities taken from Caroline. But in the Volk performance, Susie goes off-book. She knew she was right even as she sat on that floor in rehearsal, and she simply waited for the moment where she could prove it.

Traditional Final Girls in horror movies have never been a power fantasy for me. Idols maybe, sure. Women to marvel at. But I never found myself wanting to be any of them. They were put into horrendous, terrible situations and were plucky (or lucky) enough to survive. I could only hope to be so plucky or lucky if I were in their shoes! But who would want to endure what they endure? Certainly not me.

But these new Final Girls, Final Girls like Susie, they're a different story. They don't simply outlast adversity. They know who they want to be, they know what kind of world they want, and they take it. All hail Mother Suspiriorum...and Susie Bannion.


CashBailey said...

Dakota Johnson is a marvel in this. She naturally has her mother's soft, airy voice and carries a very feminine presence at a time when "strong female characters" tended to have to be brash and intense.

Johnson is a rose bush intertwined with steel cables. Hell, I even admit to being a fan of HOW TO BE SINGLE because of her.

Stacie Ponder said...

She's acting royalty! I think she's terrific, especially, with comedy. Would love to see her get more roles that take advantage of that.