Don't Look Now
Horror as High Art
words by Jane Nightshade
In 1999, the British Film Institute listed Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) as the eighth-greatest British film of all time. (To be perfectly fair, it was a joint British-Italian production, but the major cast and crew were British, plus it was based on a short story by a British author, Daphne DuMaurier.)
Mind you, the BFI considers Don’t Look Now not just the eighth-greatest British horror film, but the eighth-greatest British film, full stop. While it heads up a list of 100 Best British Films, according to Time Out. This is a fair way beyond the spotty reaction that it received from critics and audiences upon its release. As many critics and cinephiles have observed, Nic Roeg’s masterpiece requires repeated viewings to appreciate — and repeated viewings weren’t very accessible to most movie fans in 1973. Undoubtedly, the home video revolution over the past few decades helped its reputation grow.
Don’t Look Now is not only a cracking supernatural thriller, it’s also a searing meditation on the nature of grief, as well as a sumptuous tribute to Europe’s voluminous arts heritage. The neo-Baroque score by Pino Donaggio belongs in an opera house; the cinematography by Anthony Richmond (he won a BAFTA for it) looks like a Renaissance painting; the male lead is an art restoration expert, giving us lots of Italian neo-Classical architecture to feast our eyes upon. It’s horror as high art, and one of the most visually beautiful films ever made. It’s also rather disturbing in a quiet, creepy way.
Ghost story with no ghost
The two leads, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, deliver extraordinary and touching performances as John and Laura Baxter, a British couple whose happy family life has been torn asunder by the accidental death of their daughter, Christine. Laura is recovering from a grief-stricken mental breakdown and takes antidepressants; John tries to bury himself in his work — work which, months later, take the two to Venice to supervise the restoration of a mosaic at a 17th Century church. In Venice, they try to escape the memory of their dead daughter, but unfortunately, what they find is a ghost story that doesn’t really have a ghost. They flap around in it like goldfish in a broken bowl — a really elegant, lead-crystal type of bowl, still beautiful despite its tragic destruction.
The stunning artistry of this film’s production values should not surprise anyone familiar at all with Roeg’s work (Performance; The Man Who Fell to Earth). An auteur in the Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman mode, he was a cinematographer before occupying the director’s chair. Roeg was no stranger to horror either; probably his best achievement as a lensman was Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Roeg drenched that film in an incredible flood of colour and used camera techniques that out-Bergman’d Mr. Bergman. It’s by far the best-looking of all the legendary Corman/Edgar Allen Poe horrors of the 50s/60s.
Red is everywhere
Masque and Don’t Look Now are quite different in tone and subject matter, but they share one obvious similarity: the prominent use of the same shade of eye-grabbing Cardinal red, which symbolises blood and death in both films. This Renaissance-flavoured red is everywhere in Don’t Look Now: John Baxter’s plaid scarf, Laura’s bangle bracelet, a set of velvet church draperies, even a bathroom scale in a Venetian hotel.
In fact, the colour is a plot point upon which most of the film hinges. The Italian title is Shocking Red December, and we can easily see why. The tragic opening sequence is awash in red, most prominently in the shiny macintosh worn by the Baxters’ daughter, Christine—the same macintosh she drowns in, while playing near a pond on the country estate owned by her parents. Christine’s father John is inside the house, working on a set of photo-slides from a church he’s restoring, while his daughter slips into the treacherous pond. He accidentally spills a spreading blood-red substance on one of the slides, and Roeg expertly intercuts footage of Christine’s pitiful death with the spillage. (The unique use of intercuts, employed liberally in Don’t Look Now, is a Roeg trademark.)
Enter the seance
Once in Venice, the Baxters encounter a damp, watery, and moldy landscape — coastal Italy in the winter. And the particular shade of Cardinal red from Christine’s mac has followed them to this, the land of numerous actual Cardinals. A plethora of Venetians wear knitted ski caps of just that shade of red. The Baxters’ hotel has a red carpet runner in the lobby (and their room has that red bathroom scale!) The bishop who hired John as a restorer occupies an office full of red decorative items, including a felt panel that displays his bishop’s staff. Most significantly, a child scuttles through the backstreets of Venice, dressed in a red coat and black rain boots — the same attire that Christine wore on that tragic day. A serial killer is on the loose in Venice, and John sees tantalising glimpses of this red-coated child wherever the murderer’s bloody handiwork shows up. In one memorable scene, the half-naked body of one of the victims is lifted out of a canal by a crane.
The residents and tourists of Venice not only wear a lot of red, they also act oddly at times, as if they are in on a dark joke in which the Baxters aren’t included. Most peculiar of all are a pair of elderly sisters, Heather and Wendy, two British tourists like the Baxters. The sisters meet Laura in the restroom of a fancy restaurant, where Heather, a blind psychic, tells Laura that she’s seen Christine’s ghost in her red mac. Laura, to John’s dismay, begins to believe in Heather’s psychic talents and attends a seance at the sisters’ pension room. The seance then sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to one of the greatest WTF moments in horror history — possibly even more WTFish than the ending “twist” of slasher film Sleepaway Camp (1984).
The puzzling, odd shots
Threaded throughout Don’t Look Now are oddities left to the viewer’s own puzzled interpretation. For example, the sisters are in their pension room after just meeting with Laura, laughing uproariously at a framed picture the audience can’t see. We never learn why they are laughing, but the implication is sinister, as if these otherwise kindly women are mocking Laura and her overwhelming grief.
Another example: in the opening scenes where Christine dies, her brother Johnny stands and silently watches while his father struggles in futility to revive his drowned sister. The camera lingers a good deal on Johnny’s face, and the expression he wears is one of boredom, not shock or horror. It’s a bizarre sequence, and viewers are given no clue as to the reason for the boy’s strange affect (he also casually sucks a cut finger.) We never actually see Christine fall into the pond— did Johnny push her in?
In Venice, the bishop (played well by veteran Italian actor Massimo Serato) is evasive and apparently psychic; a police detective smirks as if something’s funny while discussing a possible murder; the manager of the Baxters’ hotel watches the couple suspiciously. Off-kilter behaviour from some characters builds a brooding atmosphere that’s difficult to describe.
Symbolism we can understand
Other scenes have a more obvious context, however. John walks along a canal and finds a nude plastic doll that’s been washed half-ashore. The doll has blonde hair like Christine; it also recalls the dead woman who was lifted out of the canal. The bishop bolts upright in the middle of the night while a red votive candle on his dresser burns ominously. The candle blows out, and we later learn that something terrible happened to the Baxters at that moment.
The final ending (after the WTF denouement), presents a feast of unforgettable Gothic-tinged imagery: two black funeral boats wending their way up a canal, bedecked in lavish floral arrangements, carrying mourners and an elaborate casket, while Donaggio’s score thunders its most memorable theme. The flowers are—of course—mostly red. A closeup of the chief mourner reveals a slight and puzzling, close-mouthed smile. That’s Don’t Look Now, strangely enigmatic to the end..
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