If you want horror movies that are psychologically disturbing and scratch the surface of the human psyche, go back to the 1970s when you had filmmakers who explored what made people tick. Although Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) does feature a serial killer and an explicit sex scene (for the time) it deals with themes of grief, the otherworldly, and the impact the death of a loved one can have on a relationship.
This is one of those thrillers with a twist that make you rethink everything you have seen before, and because it is so famous it was spoiled for me before I got to see it. I saw the ending as part of those 100 Scariest Movie Moments list, so it wasn’t as scary or powerful when I saw the film in its entirety last year on Netflix, but I was still impressed by the technical achievement. Also given the story deals with premonitions, you could say it is slightly appropriate to know the fate of one character as the big moment approaches.
Right from the beginning you see Don’t Look Now will definitely not be a comedy. Some movies save a major death for later or even the end, this one kicks things off with a little girl drowning outside her home. The parents, John (Donald Sutherland), and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) each deal with the loss of young Christine in their own way, with John eager to move on, but Laura is having trouble letting go. The two go on a trip to Venice where John has been commissioned to oversee the restoration of a church, a building that could be somewhat symbolic of death.
At a restaurant they encounter two sisters, Heather (Hillary Mason) and Wendy (Clelia Matana) who give them an unexpected jolt from the past. Heather claims to be psychic and tells the Baxters she can see their deceased daughter, despite the fact she is blind (of course). John, like most people in this situation, is very sceptical. You meet a complete stranger in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language, your first assumption is going to be that they are either crazy or after your money. Laura on the other hand is open to the idea of reconnecting with her daughter through whatever means and assists in a séance with the two sisters after which she becomes convinced her husband could be in danger.
Although there is a killer roaming the streets, the film works best as a thriller thanks to its imagery and editing that indicates something terrible might soon be happening. When the Baxters’ daughter dies she is wearing a red coat, and throughout the film John keeps seeing a red-coated figure running in the back alleys of Venice, never quite able to get a good look at the figure’s face. The daughter died from drowning and dead bodies are dragged out of the dirty waters of the city.
The fragmented editing purposefully adds to the confusion and the sense that something is amiss. At one point John sees his wife on a boat when she is supposed to be away in England tending to their injured son, so he goes to the police to report her as missing. Much to his surprise it is later confirmed she is in England. But he did see her; in fact the audience did as well. Was it a hallucination or something else? Things are not what they seem.
Don’t Look Now shows how movies in the right hand can be used to manipulate perception and highlight important motifs through imagery. It is brilliantly constructed, has strong performances by both Sutherland and Christie as the grief-stricken parents, and a twist that remains gut-punching even if you know it’s coming.