Q: Have horror films progressed past the need for the “final girl” trope?
A: No, the final girl trope is still being reinvented. In two recent horror films — the Suspiria remake (dir. Luca Guadanigo, 2018) and Us (dir. Jordan Peele, 2019) — final girls are not characteristically meek. In fact, they survive by ruthlessly (and needlessly) sacrificing other girls. Horror must have some fixation on murderous female dancers (s/o Black Swan and Climax), because the stars of Suspiria and Us all fit that bill.
The 2018 Suspiria is a lengthened, polished remake of its predecessor. To describe the 1977 Suspiria (dir. Dario Argento) as concisely as possible: imagine if one of Moaning Myrtle’s lucid nightmares inspired a horror flick — lots of hysteria,
unresolved sexual tension and flourishes of glamour. The 1977 film is aesthetically pleasing, with thanks due to its set design (s/o production designer: Giuseppe Bassan), but its staying power suffers for its beauty. To make amends, the 2018 remake prioritizes impact over elegance. With these changes, Suspiria becomes a rich representative of final-girls-as-slashers.
Reprising the 1977 film’s cacophonous background chatter, the 2018 Suspiria holds its own as a captivating instance of body horror. Resembling a super-gross version of The OA, Suspiria’s dance numbers are magic rituals that bring people together, but they also tear human flesh apart in so many graphic ways…
Actress Dakota Johnson plays Susie, a quiet woman newly-arrived at dance school. She’s rumored to be the ‘chosen one,’ and she dances with advanced competence; her first performance is so prodigious that she bends and cracks Olga (Elena Fokina) beyond recognition — unaware that her body lay crumpled in a secret mirror room. Susie’s dance instructors are thrilled by this, and they groom her for a final performance of inconceivable importance.
During the final dance, the girls stood around a pentagram, contorting their bodies to intricate choreography. Thence far, the victims of their rituals were only students who defected from the dance-school-coven, but this low death toll didn’t last long. In the end, most of the women at dance school fell victim to Susie. Apparently, the only way for her to be anointed as house mother was by slaying her peers, so she calmly splattered the chambers with their blood and entrails.
To be fair, Susie was possessed by an elevated power. Other women in her position might have done the same to her.
I’ll forever hold that Us should have been a miniseries instead of a feature film, and I do hope it’s adapted one day. It could have used the extra time to expand its considerations of social class, mutuality and prophetism. Nonetheless, the movie gives us plenty to chew on.
In Us, a government experiment leads to every living person having a doppelgänger (a ‘Tethered’) who lives underground. Actress Lupita Nyong’o plays a pair of such clones — one of whom lives lavishly above-ground (Adelaide) while the other toils as human refuse in the sewers (Red).
When Red comes to Adelaide’s vacation home with her duplicate family in tow, you think you understand her anger completely. Adelaide has lived in better conditions than Red, but the only true difference between them is their place of birth. Red had to eat live animals while Adelaide chose between fine dining and convenience food. Red’s limbs atrophied in close quarters while Adelaide stretched to her heart’s content. Red’s attempts at ballet were obstructed by walls and looming violence while Adelaide enjoyed a spacious dance studio. None of that inequality was fair, so Red wanted to get even. Makes sense.
As you near the end of the movie, it’s clear that the plot isn’t that simple. ‘Red’ wants revenge because she is Adelaide, and ‘Adelaide’ is Red. The original Red met the original Adelaide when they were children, and both of them had wandered to a funhouse portal between the overworld and the underworld. Original Red didn’t want to be underground anymore, so she had a decision to make, and she made it quickly. Thinking this encounter was her only chance to escape, she knocked Original Adelaide unconscious and dragged her to the impoverished underground, taking her place in a middle-class family that offered ballet lessons and home-cooked meals. This was a betrayal rooted in desperation and scarcity.
In one of the movie’s chilling moments, Original Adelaide told Original Red that things didn’t have to go that way. The liberation of the Tethereds could have happened peacefully. In fact, Original Adelaide would have taken Original Red home with her if she’d given her a chance, if she’d trusted her, if she hadn’t assumed only one of them could make it.
Who do you feel sorry for in this story: the person who had nothing to lose and everything to gain, or the person who had everything and lost it? Can a logic of blame even be applied to two women who have always done what they thought they had to do? If there is any blame in this film, I think it’s owed to a world structure that didn’t teach Red and Adelaide to take care of each other — to understand that their fates were intertwined from birth.
Closing: Final Girls & Selfish Women
Critiquing the malignment of ‘selfish women’ is a mainstay for feminist thought. Over time, more women have questioned why they’ve lived to save other people before themselves.
Suspiria and Us take the ‘Selfish Woman’ archetype to its extremes, writing heroines who slash their way to victory when they aren’t even in immediate danger. Thus, the heroines of Suspiria and Us are also its monsters. The ultimate horror of these films is how quickly its final girls move on from the damage they cause to other girls.
It might be tempting to see feminist empowerment in Susie and Red’s selfishness, but I caution against this reductive reading. Mainstream feminism often errs in deciding that what men have is what women should want (e.g. selfishness as a virtue). It’s true that pressures on women (and people coded as women) to always give of themselves must end, but for those of us who want to build lives with other people, pure selfishness will never satisfy us. It may help us to survive, but as the adage goes, survival isn’t living.
‘The Selfish Woman’ is only a gateway to freer models of womanhood — she isn’t a final destination.