For as much criticism as the horror genre receives for being sexist and misogynistic, it has a long history of strong characters and iconic performances from women, whether it’s Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein, Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Janet Leigh in Psycho, or Sharni Vinson in You’re Next. In the late 1970s and ’80s, actresses who stood out within the genre were dubbed “Scream Queens.” But that title doesn’t do justice to Daria Nicolodi, frequent collaborator of Dario Argento and a titan of Italian horror. That’s because Daria Nicolodi is no Scream Queen. Daria Nicolodi is a goddamn goddess.
A too often unsung hero of genre cinema, Daria Nicolodi helped shape the face of Italian horror both in front of and behind the camera. The story goes that Florence-born Nicolodi was so taken with Argento’s first film, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, that she set out to meet him. The rest is horror movie history. Besides a working relationship that lasted 30 years, the two became romantically involved for roughly ten years and gave birth to a daughter, Asia Argento, in 1975. This alone is enough to make Nicolodi the stuff of legend (as anyone with a pulse who has seen an Asia Argento film can attest), but it’s the body of work that Nicolodi produced that makes her such an important figure in horror history and a truly great genre star.
Her first collaboration with Argento—and still her best role—was as plucky journalist Gianna Brezzi in 1975’s Profondo Rosso (Deep Red). Everything that’s great about Nicolodi is on display here, from her singular sense of style to her steely resolve to her radiant smile, which gives the formalistic, sometimes clinical, technique of the movie some unexpected warmth. Nicolodi approaches her role like the heroine of a 1940s screwball comedy and the movie crackles to life whenever she’s on-screen opposite star David Hemmings, making him even more sympathetic in the process—we like him more because she likes him.
The Italian horror scene of the ’70s and ’80s isn’t particularly well-remembered for its plethora of strong female characters; more often they were victims, sex objects and, on occasion, secretly mad murderers. In Profondo Rosso, Nicolodi shatters every one of these stereotypes. The scene in which she arm-wrestles Hemmings acts not only as an entertaining bit of character building for both of them, but also as a refutation of traditional gialli gender politics. If these movies are, in part, about male insecurity in the face of urbanization and women’s liberation (as argued by scholar Michael McKenzie in his video essay “Profondo Giallo,” part of Arrow Video’s incredible Blu-ray release of Deep Red), then Daria Nicolodi’s performance signifies a colossal leap forward in how women are represented in gialli. The only thing Argento likes better than glass is breaking glass, and in Deep Red Nicolodi shatters that ceiling.
Not that the changes would last forever. By the time Nicolodi appeared in 1980’s Inferno—the second of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy—their tempestuous relationship had soured. As a result, she doesn’t have nearly as significant a role, both textually and metatextually. Instead of asserting herself, rescuing the hero from a fire, or getting the opportunity to be sexy and funny and intelligent and independent, she is attacked by cats and unceremoniously stabbed to death.
Nicolodi fares much better in Tenebrae, Argento’s 1982 giallo and arguably his last true masterpiece. Playing the assistant to the movie’s hero, author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), Nicolodi is neither helpless victim nor raving lunatic. If anything, it is she who bears witness to the movie’s developments, acting as an audience surrogate as things get increasingly crazy and we lose whatever foothold we had when the film began. While her voice was famously overdubbed by American actress Theresa Russell, Nicolodi’s light cannot be extinguished on-screen. She humanizes the characters around her, and a brief scene that could be read as a flirtation with Peter Neal gives enough of an inner life to her character that what happens later takes on a new dimension. She screams not just because she’s in the presence of violence, but out of the horror of realization. It could have been a thankless role, but Nicolodi imbues the part with life.
Beyond her numerous starring roles in most of Dario Argento’s best films, Nicolodi made contributions to his films that changed the shape of horror forever. She is reportedly the one who suggested that Argento use Goblin to score Profondo Rosso; the band would go on to record legendary scores for many classic horror films (most famously Suspiria, but also George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, aka Zombi, Joe D’Amato’s Beyond the Darkness, and Tenebrae). She provided the original ideas and co-wrote the screenplays for both Suspiria and Inferno, as well as two screenplays for director Luigi Cozzi: From the Deep (aka Demons 6) and Paganini Horror, the latter of which is noteworthy for its focus on an all-girl band who unlock an evil force after getting access to a long-lost piece of music. The film is clunkier than her work with Argento (director Luigi Cozzi is no Dario Argento) and Nicolodi’s role takes a long time to come into focus, but the screenplay she contributes continues to explore the relationship between art and horror through a female lens.
Her best work independent of Argento is as the star of 1977’s Shock, the final theatrical film from Mario Bava, the Godfather of Italian Horror. Playing a woman convinced that her son is possessed by the spirit of her dead husband, Nicolodi is unable to rely on any of the effortless charm she exudes in Profondo Rosso. Instead, she must portray a woman losing her mind over the course of 90 minutes—and she isn’t particularly stable in the first place. Nicolodi plays the part like an exposed nerve, finding strength not in her character’s plucky progressiveness but in the fearlessness of her performance. Italian horror is not known for having strong female characters, but in a genre in which the motivations of most actresses consist of “try not to get killed” or “look like you’re being killed,” Nicolodi creates a character that, despite her madness, is fully dimensional.
By the 1990s, Nicolodi had more or less retired from acting, appearing in only four films in the course of the entire decade. She would resurface from time to time to act either opposite her daughter (such as in 2007’s Mother of Tears, the third and final “Three Mothers” film) or under her daughter’s direction (2000’s Scarlet Diva). With the best days of the Italian horror scene long in the past, perhaps there was no longer a place for Nicolodi’s revolutionary contributions. She managed to change from within the boys’ club that was the Italian horror scene of the 1970s and ’80s, becoming one of the few true feminist icons of that particular movement on both sides of the camera. We horror fans spend so much time throwing around the names of male filmmakers—Argento, Fulci, Deodato, etc.—that we overlook what a towering figure Daria Nicolodi is.
For me, it’s easy to pinpoint the exact moment at which she becomes a movie star. She’s leaving Hemmings’ apartment and does this little dance on the way out the door, accompanied by the guitar rock of Goblin on the soundtrack. Besides disarming us with its total charm, the beat couldn’t be clearer: Daria Nicolodi has arrived, boys. Nothing will be the same again.
And the best part? There wasn’t a single cat around.