More noise than signal

Don’t Look Now

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

While there’s as solid an argument for putting Don’t Look Now in to the psychological thriller category as horror, it’s this cross-pollination that’s lead to it being regarded, in retrospect at least, as one of the more critically well regarded horrors of the era.

John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie respectively. Obviously) are understandably left distraught when their young daughter Christine drowns in their backyard pond. They attempt to get on with their lives by accepting a commission to restore a church in Venice, ignoring the recent news of a serial killer on the loose. John throws himself into his work, with Laura seeming to be left at more of a loose end.

In a chance meeting, Laura happens upon two sisters, Wendy (Clelia Matania) and Heather (Hilary Mason), the latter of whom may be blind in her two common or garden eyes, but her third eye is wide open. Claiming to have “the gift” of psychic abilities, she claims that she’s seen Christine in the afterlife and that she’s quite happy. Although John makes his opinion on the likelihood of this being anything other than a scam quite clear, it does give Laura some small sense of closure and starts dealing with the loss a little better.

Tensions rise when Laura wants to return to the two sisters for a seance to contact Christine, but this goes on the back burner when they receive news that their son, until now safely out of mind at boarding school, has been hospitalised in a minor accident. Laura is sent off to the airport immediately, but soon John begins seeing first his wife in the company of the sisters around town, and then glimpses of what appears to be his daughter, sporting the same distinctive red raincoat.

He gets the police involved, who detain Heather but this comes to naught, as Laura phones them from the boarding school, obviously not a brainwashed captive of the two villainous mastermind old age pensioners. Thoroughly puzzled by these events, John apologises to Heather and takes her back to her hotel, leaving just before Heather collapses into a psychic fit foretelling imminent danger to John.

And here’s where the spoilers would come in, but let’s see if we can just say that things do not go well for John after he catches another glimpse of what seems to be his daughter and gives chase.

I’ve never had a great deal of affinity for the supernatural elements so beloved of the genre. Somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, rationality found me at a young age and gave me a fairly robust belief system of not believing in anything, be that religious, supernatural or paranormal. As such on first viewing this, in my late teens if memory serves, I was rather taken by what appears on first blush to be a psychological horror on the effects of grief that’s rejecting the paranormal elements and soon as it introduces then, at least from the central character’s perspective.

The dreamlike, or perhaps nightmarish, qualities produced by director Nicolas Roeg does a great job of building tension towards the final, shocking moment when John’s ticket is punched. Roeg’s never met a narrative he couldn’t fracture, and with the possible exception of the wonderful alienation he produced for The Man Who Fell To Earth, this may be his finest hour. There’s a strong counter-argument that this is not a film built for repeat viewing, although I do find rewatching this to be rewarding to a point.

Sutherland and Christie give compelling, meaty performances that makes the film a joy to watch, and the visuals of Venice certainly are easy on the eye. Roeg’s method of intercutting throughout the film remains a great way to keep us off balance, even when you’re expecting it, and picking up on the recurring motifs throughout the film shows that this has a layered depth that is not common to the horror genre and very enjoyable to tease apart.

Sadly knowing exactly how John meets his end does make it rather harder to invest in that story arc. While it absolutely worked for me on watching the film first time through, it’s not the sort of twist that survives any rational analysis at all.

Even with this in mind, I enjoyed revisiting this, and it holds up as a very good film from an interesting director that I hope we talk about in a future episode. Compelling narrative, great performances, very involving on the technical levels of film-making, and overall a really solid thriller cum horror.