And we’re back for another round of Almost Horror, everyone’s favorite monthly where we revisit films that live beyond the fringe of horror but still holds something within genre’s long-reaching grasp. This month we tackle The Virgin Suicides (1999), the Sophia Coppola directed film based on the novel by author Jeffrey Eugenides.
While this is ultimately a story about the coming of age during adolescence, deep down its a terrifying mystery where the unassuming calm of 1970’s suburban America is the backdrop for urban legends, death, and oppression. Let’s take a look at the set pieces, shall we?
The Urban Legend of Cecilia Lisbon
The Lisbon girls. Five sheltered sisters with strict Catholic parents who have become something of an obsession for the young boys of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The film opens with the youngest sister, Cecilia played by Hanna R. Hall (Halloween, 2008) attempting, but not succeeding, suicide. Quite a dark and macabre way to set the mood for a coming of age film.
This, of course, sets into motion a whole slew of fables and legends around town. Why would a thirteen-year-old girl decide to slit her wrists in the bathtub? While the reason isn’t initially clear, the snooping neighbors gossiping over hushed phone calls obviously had their theories. And the other kids in the neighborhood that talk about her like she’s that one kid in that one town that has that one friend that someone in another town knows that found her in the tub. Despite the event only being moments old, it has already gained urban legend status on the streets.
The Creepy Viage of Religion
There is a huge effect from religion on this entire family. While on the surface the overt religious focus may seem to come from a good place as the Lisbon parents, played by James Woods (Videodrome, 1983) and Kathleen Turner (Serial Mom, 1994), attempt to introduce the moral compass that faith offers in the raising of their children. But with most things that are enforced oppressively, this backfires as the oppressed go against the very thing the oppressor is forcing upon them.
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But it isn’t just the overbearing nature of religious teachings that push this film into horror movie territory, it’s also the imagery used within. In a scene where young man, Peter Sisten played by Chris Hale (The Bill, 1990) is invited to the Lisbon house for dinner in an attempt to help the mental health of the suicidal Cecilia, the young boy uses a restroom in one of the daughter’s bedrooms. Upon entering the room he is met with eerie figures of crucified Messiahs, mourning Virgin Marys, and forlorn-looking saints. A sight that any horror fan knows means certain doom.
The Party To End All Parties
Of course one of the more glaring instances of horror movie threshold is the scene where The Lisbons throw a party, inviting some neighborhood boys to mingle with their girls. While everything starts off as awkward as one would expect, the party soon takes off and the kids seem to be having a good time. That is everyone but Cecilia. She excuses herself and heads up to her room where only mere minutes later, she jumps out of her second-story bedroom window and lands on the wrought iron fence post finally finding success in her quest to die.
The ensuing discovery of her body is pure nightmare fuel, especially for her parents and sisters as patriarch, Ronald Lisbon, attempts to hold his daughter as she lies, splayed out, impaled on top of the fence. The party attendees leave in shocked silence as the cries of Mrs. Lisbon echo across the front lawn. Pure horror movie stuff!
The Margaret White Effect
Mrs. Lisbon, for the first two acts of the movie, definitely leans toward the overprotective side of things. But after she allows all of her daughters to go to the homecoming dance and fourteen-year-old Lux played by Kirsten Dunst (Interview With the Vampire, 1994) gets left behind on the school football field all night, she slides right into Carrie White’s mom mode.
She locks all of the girls down in their home, pulling them all out of school, she forces Lux to destroy all of her rock n’ roll records, she touts the word of God ad nauseam and is an outrage away from locking one of her kids in a closet. She keeps the girls so isolated that they have to resort to ordering catalogs through the mail in order to see anything other than the same four walls of their respective bedrooms.
The Pact and The Oppression of Youth
After a lifetime of tyranny at the hands of their parents, the remaining Lisbon Sisters checked out in a massive suicide pact. Discovered by the boys from across the street, the sisters devised a plan the leave the same way their youngest sibling did. Whether it was right or wrong isn’t the point though.
Bonnie Lisbon, played by Chelse Swain (The Mangler 2, 2002) hung herself. Mary Lisbon, played by A.J. Cook (Final Destination 2, 2003) stuck her head in the gas oven. Therese Lisbon, played by Leslie Hayman (her only onscreen appearance) overdosed on sleeping pills. Lux Lisbon (Dunst) died of carbon monoxide poisoning after starting the family station wagon in a closed garage.
ADS ARE SCARY
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The real horror here is the destruction of youth by the depression of adults. It sits squarely on the shoulders of a family ruled by blind, stubborn faith that ultimately leads to its unraveling proving that the murder of innocence is one horror that is perhaps the most horrible of all.
“…the murder of innocence is one horror that is perhaps the most horrible of all.”
As if the destruction of the Lisbon family in full view of the entire Grosse Pointe community wasn’t bad enough, but to add insult to injury, the debutants and their families hold their annual ball featuring the cruelest theme, asphyxiation. This furthers the point that adulthood is the great killer of true virtue.
So there it is, our assertation that The Virgin Suicides is perhaps closer to a horror film than most would believe. Where would you place The Virgin Suicides? Do you agree with our assessment? Or is it a drama through and through? Let us know on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club Facebook Group. We’re dying to get your take on things… pun intended.