When watching Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria (1977) and its thematic sequel Inferno (1980), it’s understandable that the mind would instantly capture the bright cinematography and bloody violence that occurs throughout the film. What Argento doesn’t receive credit for, however, is the portrayal of its female protagonists, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) and Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle). Both characters are artists with Suzy a student a prestigious ballet school and Rose an aspiring poet. Both find themselves living within the confines that house demonic and powerful witches who create darkness and chaos and delight in killing and torture. I love both of these films (I have written reviews on both which you can read here and here) with both leaving a lasting impact on how I view horror films. The writing is fantastic and the cinematography is highly creative but it was the portrayal of these women thrown into impossible circumstance and their determination and strength that stood out to me. Compared with the trend of horror films at the time where we see women portrayed as the damsel in distress and in need of a man to save them, Argento omits men almost entirely in Suspiria and the protagonist, Mark in Inferno is far from the traditional “strong men” that you tend to see in films.
Starting with Suspiria, Argento’s big breakthrough into English-language horror was a technicolour masterpiece filled to the brim with fake blood and guts. Following aspiring dancer Suzy, a new student at a prestigious dance school, as she begins to investigate mysterious disappearances of other students and staff alike. We first see Suzy leaving the airport in Freiberg into a torrential storm. The cuts and use of music when the automatic doors of the exit are opening and closing brings that otherworldly atmosphere to the film. Her introduction to the staff sees her intervene in an interview with the police when they enquire about a missing girl. What transpires is an environment in which Suzy becomes even more of an outsider than before as her bids to fit in make her stand out to the witches that run the academy. Naturally, Suzy is reluctant to believe the stories that her friend Sara tells her but as people begin disappearing one by one, Suzy becomes resourceful and finishes the mission that Sara started. Suspiria only has a handful of male characters with the bulk of the cast being made up of the female staff and students.
Rose Elliot in Inferno is much like Suzy in her ways. The film opens with her reading about The Three Mothers, three witches who use their dark powers to control the world. She is warned off the subject by a male antiquarian but she goes ahead with her investigation regardless. What follows is a fantastic scene in which Rose dives into a pool to retrieve a lost necklace. Upon swimming into a corpse, she is understandably frightened but still pushes on with her investigation and writes to her brother Mark, asking him to return to New York to help her. Rose’s mission doesn’t end happily and Mark ends up getting the credit but his findings are based on his sister’s research without whom he wouldn’t have figured out the mystery. Rose’s contribution to the film can be felt throughout despite her absence in the second half. Her character also seems more developed and intriguing than Mark which is odd for a genre that (at the time) excluded strong women from their narrative.
Both women are also artistic as discussed before and their talents not only add to their character development but these skills assist them in desperate times. Suzy’s curious nature inspires the witch to attempt a physical injury by inflicting a hemorrhage on her during class causing her to become bedridden. This fails to slow down her investigation, however, and the loss of best friend Sara inspires her to get to the bottom of things. The same could be said of Rose whose love of books and research adds to her observant nature and her ability to attune her focus on figuring out who owns the building.
I really enjoy both performances because the characters don’t come across as reliant even when they ask for help. They are indifferent to the male heroes we see in horror films. Argento also doesn’t sexualise the protagonists which is refreshing to see as women in horror are usually subject to appearing in demeaning scenes such as unnecessary nudity and rape scenes. There’s a reason why his films are timeless and even watching now they feel current and progressive, showcasing his real talent for filmmaking.
What do you think of Argento as a filmmaker? Which film of his is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below!