Originally released in October 1973 during a golden age of horror (alongside The Wicker Man, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Exorcist), Don’t Look Now is slightly lesser known and notorious than the aforementioned, but is an equally striking genre masterpiece and “existentialist fable” that has lost little of its edge over the past forty five years.
The script (adapted from a story by Daphne Du Maurier) sees Architectural Restorer John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) relocate to Venice following the tragic death of their daughter, Christine. Once there, they encounter a creepy, blind psychic, Heather (Hilary Mason) and her sister Wendy (Clelia Matania), who tell Laura that the ghost of her daughter is sitting between them in a restaurant. The sisters then insist the couple return to London as John’s life could be in danger.
Don’t Look Now’s foreboding, dreamy set-up starts serenely but culminates in anguish with the classic slow-motion shot of John rising from the pond (it was actually filmed in a zinc tank) while cradling his dead daughter. The story then glides like a gondola through a nightmare with plot strands linking serial killers and cursed church restorations woven into Allan Scott and Chris Bryant’s screenplay around the central narrative about a couple coming to terms with their daughter’s death.
Director Nicolas Roeg’s Venice is hoary and rain sodden (no “touristy vistas” or metaphors for eroticism as suggested in Du Maurier’s short); conveying bleak realism and pensiveness. The director also imparts a rustic documentary naturalism, capturing the Venetian Gothic/ Byzantine-like edifices with shaky, hand held shots, zoom lenses and frenetic editing by Graeme Clifford. This contradicts and compliments magical fantasy aspects, then seams them symbiotically, making Don’t Look Now remarkable and opaque.
Roeg renders viewers susceptible to subtly governed, strategic scares which slyly seep into the subconsciousness then fester, rattle and discombobulate instead of startling outright with blunt frights. As a result, Don’t Look Now’s otherworldliness allures but doesn’t estrange or alienate. Reflections and visual distortions run prominent while a recurring thematic red in Roeg’s palette denotes blood, death and sex. It’s the colour of the coat Christine wore when she died, the one donned by a mysterious figure scuttling through the Venetian backstreets, and strikes (with green) in almost every scene.
Water is also a recurrent “motif”: from the opening close-up of a rain battered puddle, to Christine’s drowning, John knocking a glass of it over on his desk at the time of his daughter’s death, and the Venetian canals; representing John and Laura’s silent but quietly teeming grief that we don’t see on their surface but saturates the mood.
Roeg shows the couple coping, processing and trying to move on; as demonstrated in that infamous toothpaste licking, time shift sex scene spliced with shots of them getting dressed post coital. The chasm at the centre of their marriage surfaces during heated discussions on religion and the paranormal, entrenching Don’t Look Now with authenticity (Du Maurier visited Venice following the death of her lover; the actress Gertrude Lawrence).
Don’t Look Now also contains elements of several horror sub-genres yet resists extrapolating them to heighten the suspense. Concerns for the couple’s son in the UK and a police investigation come into play at the end. Other scenes send shivers down the spine and raise hairs, mostly due to Roeg’s film-making (with a nod to cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond). A good example being: when Laura learns that Heather is blind, she stares up and catches her simpering image and white eyes reflected in three separate mirrors, which unnerves massively when coupled with a soaring sound and the psychic’s eerie smile. The slight glances, and eventual unmasking of the red Venice figure also quicken the pulse.
The protagonists’ past, present and futures blur, bend then collide and, at one point, appear to coincide, making Don’t Look Now a “meditation of mortality”. Roeg implies this via camera flits, jump-cuts, warped premonitions and twisted symbolism which makes it abstract and wondrous but never incoherent. This unfading, magical and menacing masterpiece has both stood the test of time and challenged the very notion of it. It remains as much a work of genius as the horror films it originally arrived alongside back in 1973 and 4, but is unforgettable for completely different reasons and therefore stands unparalleled.
The 4K and ultra HD restoration of Don’t Look Now is released on Blu-Ray, DVD, Collector’s Edition and EST from 29th July.