Welcome to the Women in Horror column. Every Wednesday, we highlight the work of women in the horror genre.
Liberation. Movement. Abolition. Accountability. These are just a few words circulating the atmosphere today. These words bring out a feeling, a feeling that breeds reflection and conversation in so many, including myself. They’ve been circulating the inner workings of my mind. Constantly. They were prevalent in my mind when I sat down to watch the 1973 film Sisters on HBOMAX, and I found those words plastered over every scene, warping every line spoken, and leaving me with that feeling for some reflective conversation.
Sisters (1973) is a Hitchcockian thriller about twin sisters, Danielle and Dominique (played by Margot Kidder), and their neighbor, Grace (Jennifer Salt), who witnesses a murder. Discussions surrounding the film have centered on its dive into voyeurism and sexual horror; however, the entire film is also saturated in anecdotes and imagery of many other social topics, like police reform and the Women’s Liberation and Civil Rights movements.
To understand the complex “headspace” of this horror story, you have to understand the headspace of America. It was a country fresh off the heels of the Civil Rights movement. It was a time when the Black Power movement, Blaxploitation, the Gay Liberation, and the Women’s Liberation movement (also known as the “second wave of feminism”) had already gained fast traction through the hearts of many. Sisters uses this moment of history to cement its plot into dark realism and true fear, with three White women at the very center of it all.
The film opens on a game show scene where a Black man is placed in a scenario in which he is in a changing room alone with a blind, White woman (Danielle) as she begins to undress. “What will he do?” the game show host proses. He says this is a test of chivalry, because what is a man to do when a “pretty girl starts taking off all of her clothes before him?” The audience laughs on. What will a man do to a woman’s privacy, her body, and her individuality? The question is poised as if it is his choice to do with her as he pleases, as if nothing belongs to her. The man, Phillip (Lisle Wilson), subverts expectations of the audience and doesn’t watch the woman undress against her will. As a “reward” for being a “good sport,” he’s given a free meal ticket to Manhattan’s famous African Room- an “African American” restaurant that relishes in a plethora of demeaning stereotypes. Already the film has centered itself on Black Americans and women, and Phillip and Danielle go on a date.
Through shared drink and conversation, Danielle slurs through her story of sexual harassment, and states that she’s not like America’s women’s liberation. She doesn’t spend her life “hating men,” she says. Since feminism and women’s rights movements have begun, they have been seen as movements to spite men. The same can be said about the Civil Rights’ movement. Whenever the minority demands basic human rights, it is seen as a direct attack against the majority. Chaos ensues, and belittlement, lies, pointed fingers, and literal war tactics are used in an attempt to demean and erase the voices of the unheard. Women’s liberation and sexuality is positioned as the masked villain of this story right from the start. They are ideals that make women behave the way they “shouldn’t,” and those women are then punished. When Danielle sleeps with Phillip, her sister, Dominique, murders him in cold blood. Dominique hates any man her sister shares a sexual relationship with. She consistently attacks Danielle’s sexual desire while also being a representation of suppression on multiple fronts.
Danielle’s neighbor, Grace, witnesses Phillip’s brutal murder and alerts the authorities. Grace is a local journalist hated and ostracized by the police department for running a piece on their corruption against Black communities. Immediately, they give Grace a hard time and don’t take her report seriously. In fact, the only reason why detectives investigate is because they’re afraid of the headlines she may run if they didn’t. They have zero regard for the life of a Black man and only regard being caught not caring. After a half-arsed search, the police department decides that Grace is a liar and moves on. If I had a dollar for every time a man didn’t believe a woman in a horror film, before it cost her something, then I would have enough money to buy them an all-female island to escape to. Nonetheless, it is a direct reflection of society. “Believe all women” and the “Me Too” movement aren’t enough to get women’s voices heard by people who don’t even bother to hide their contempt and ignorance. Not listening, not believing women, costs them so much, too much, and it costs Grace her sense of self and individuality. By the time the police come around, it’s too late.
The experiences of Black people and women are placed under a small scope with this film. But even with this limited view, audiences can’t help but resonate with the deep complexities and repression. The ending ensures it, leaving on such a stark note it gives you chills. Grace is stripped of her sanity, and the police get off scot-free for their negligence. The stripping of one’s womanhood is an unchanging, unresolved theme mentioned at the beginning and end of the story. To make it even more terrifying, Phillip is left on the side of the road, buried in a massive, white couch as a coffin. He is literally being erased by the color white. He may never be found. He may never have his justice. His blackness is the first thing displayed about him in the beginning of the film, and it’s the last thing you remember at the end.
The finale of Sisters definitely chills you to the core, and if you have sunk into the reality of our modern society, it makes the film all the more bleak. To think a film released nearly 50 years ago can relate so clearly to what we are living now, makes you wonder about the state of humanity and its progression. The movements are never-ending. The fight for liberation is ongoing. The calls for abolition and accountability have clearly not stopped and will not. The conversation continues, every day.