Don’t Look Now | Review

This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!

The penultimate pit stop in our journey through the history of horror takes us to Venice and Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now

#31DaysOfHorror

★★★★★

The Venetian tourist board balked at the release of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in 1973. Roeg presented a Venice that was cold, in rapid decay and home to sex and serial killers. It was hardly a ringing endorsement for holidaymakers. Leaving sightseeing for the likes of The Venetian Affair and Blume in Love, Roeg pitched his lurking film in the city’s side streets and unearthed looming dread beneath its ancient sheen. 

Though defined conventionally as either thriller or horror, it is a sense of deep-rooted melancholia that marks the real impetus of the film. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are exceptional as grieving couple Laura and John Baxter, conveying one of the most believable relationships in the history of cinema. In a remarkably choreographed opening sequence we witness the tragic, and yet somehow mysterious, accident that saw their young daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) drown in their garden pond, whilst playing in her bright red mack. Sutherland’s unearthly scream on discovering the body, ethereally floating face up, deeply affects.

Perhaps hoping to move on from their loss, the pair travel to Venice – the lagoon city famously sinking into the water around it – when John is commissioned to repair a time-weary, ancient church. Whilst there, Laura meets and befriends Wendy (Clelia Matania) and her blind, psychic sister Heather (Hilary Mason) – who claims to have connected with the deceased Christine. Laura’s joy sees a revival in her libido, which is warmly accepted by the more skeptical John. It is, however, he who begins to catch glimpses of a red coated figure in the corners of Venice. Could it be that Christine has returned?

Now a nonagenarian, Nicholas Roeg faded from the cinema scene after being awarded the BFI Fellowship in 1994. His last great was the Jim Henson adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Twenty years earlier, Don’t Look Now was Roeg’s fourth film but only his second feature solo in the directorial seat. What is remarkable, then, is just how assured this all feels in terms of his pushing the boundaries of innovative technical experimentation. Roeg zooms in and out with his camera, match-cutting visually and aurally – courtesy of top-draw editor Graeme Clifford – and delivering a time-splintering rhythm therein. As for the film’s controversially realistic sex scene, Roeg’s montaging between the act and aftermath stands still as a triumph in gorgeous, meaningful filmmaking. 

All here is accompanied by a terrific score from Pino Donaggio, in his film debut, and captured sublimely by director of photography Anthony B. Richmond. Indeed, an artful coherence across all aspects of its production gifts the film a well measured tone and impressive aura of beauty, of the variety that is not often found in horror. Some may find this genre attribution to be at odds with a film that takes its time to reveal the supernaturality of its plot and holds back on gore until its very last breaths. For the most part, Allan Scott and Chris Bryant’s script, itself adapted from a Daphne du Maurier novella, exists as a poignant study of suppressed grief. But is there anything more terrifying than mortality? It is this story’s prerogative to explore the experience of being left behind and note the vulnerabilities that such a state inflicts on those in its thrall.

In just one of Don’t Look Now’s vast quantity of thematic metaphors – which also include repeated recalls to shattering glass and rippling water – Venice is described as being ‘like a city in aspic, wrapped over from a dinner party, where all the guests are dead or gone.’ Isn’t that just wonderful.

T.S.

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