Don’t Look Now (1973)
Written by Allan Scott & Chris Bryant
Directed by Nicholas Roeg
I was a child when I first encountered the work of Nicholas Roeg, and I didn’t even know it. That was in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It’s not considered Roeg’s work and near the end of his career when projects weren’t as abundant. In college, I really discovered the magic of his particular style of filmmaking by watching his films from the 1970s (Performance, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth). What drew me to him was this picture, Don’t Look Now, a measured, tense horror film about the inevitability of death and the weight of grief. This is all done through a brilliant editing technique that simulates clairvoyance.
John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) have traveled to Venice in the wake of their daughter’s tragic drowning death. John keeps his mind occupied with his work restoring an ancient church while Laura quietly keeps her grief to herself. During lunch one afternoon, they meet Heather and Wendy, two elderly British sisters having an Italian holiday. Heather is blind and claims to have psychic abilities that allow her to see and communicate with the dead. She says Laura’s daughter is with her, sitting at the table and laughing.
Laura is convinced while John remains skeptical. Heather later states that John must leave Venice because his life is in danger if he stays. An accident involving their son in England occurs, and Laura goes to check-up on him. John begins to wander the streets of Venice, and it becomes clear he too has second sight, catching glimpses of past and future. All this ends up leading him down a path of doom that he appears to have been destined for his entire life.
Don’t Look Now is one of my favorite horror films of all-time because of how well it builds an atmosphere of dread and examines the way lives can feel fated to tragedy. The exterior trappings are all classically Gothic, emphasizing Venice’s architecture, both the ancient qualities and the maze it can become for those who don’t know how to navigate the streets. Multiple times John finds himself coming back to a place he once was through an accident. He mutters that this place seems familiar on one trip, and it’s not until the third act that we realize it’s because he is having premonitions about what will happen to him.
Roeg was a master editor and uses that skill to construct a palette of images that gain significance the deeper we get into the film. The scene of the Baxters’ daughter floating in the pond clad in her red raincoat, a photographic slide bleeding after water is spilled on it, gargoyles peering from the tops of the buildings, a funeral boat procession. These feel like memories for most of the story until the end when we see they were like signs from a higher power trying to warn John and Laura about what was coming.
Confusion and miscommunication are extremely prevalent throughout Roeg’s work and most certainly highlighted here. A choice was made not to subtitle any of the Italian spoken during the picture, which puts us in John and Laura’s shoes, unable to understand what is being said to them many times. John’s job is to create doppelgangers of the art pieces within the churches, facsimiles that resemble what used to be there. John gets mistaken for a peeping tom when trying to find Laura after she has wandered off. The police think he might be involved in a series of murders happening in the city. John describes the sister to a police artist and ends up with images that look like someone else. John sees things he interprets as happening in the present only to find out they are moments from the future.
Don’t Look Now uses its urban city to perfection so much that it would be impossible to set this story anywhere else other than Venice. Roeg takes advantage of how difficult the place is to navigate both on foot and in a boat. There’s a critical murder investigation happening in the background, but Roeg never lets it take over the main story. The narrative is centered around the relationship between John and Laura and the tragedy they can’t communicate about, leading to a second tragedy as a result.
My stance is always that the best horror is not one that relies on gore and special effects but on forcing an audience to confront themes surrounding mortality and the unavoidable fate of death. It’s made even better when in retrospect, we can see how characters could have avoided this pain if they stopped for a moment and communicated. When we believe we understand everything around us, we are most vulnerable to be met with a terrible fate.