Ben Cherry reviews Don’t Look Now, showing in our cinema until Thursday 7 November.
Halloween may be over, but horror films are for all year round and not just for October 31st. Don’t Look Now is a 1970s classic from arguably the greatest decade of the genre and is showing in Plymouth Arts Cinema on 6th and 7th November with a new digital restoration.
The film tells a horrifying tale of a couple, John and Laura Baxter, (played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland), who after losing their daughter in tragic circumstances, go to Venice where John is overseeing the restoration of an old church. It is in gloomy wintry Venice, that Laura encounters two elderly sisters, one of whom is psychic, who claim to have had communication with their recently deceased daughter. John refuses to believe this possibility and continues with his work, whilst seeing visions of a small child in a red coat, the same as his daughter’s.
The film came out in 1973, which was a landmark year in horror. There was of course The Exorcist (released on Boxing Day no less) and The Wicker Man which was released, in the good old days of double features, as the ‘B’ picture to Don’t Look Now’s ‘A’ picture. That night at the pictures would have been particularly disturbing and distressing no doubt and all three films in the years since have lost none of their power to frighten and terrorize.
Out of all the many great horror films to be released in the seventies, Don’t Look Now, really stands out as a true original, directed by Nicholas Roeg who was making films like no one else during that decade and this film is no exception. If you go in expecting jump scares, gratuitous violence and garish special effects, then you will be disappointed. The horror is ultimately derived from the very real horror of a loss of a child and trying to pick up the pieces and attempting to move on from it. It is a film that relies on creating an atmosphere of dread, similar to The Shining, but with more restraint. There is no descent into axe-wielding madness, or elevators of gore here, just two quirky sisters and a figure in a creepy red mac.
Nicholas Roeg is known for making artistic and challenging work, with films such as Performance and the David Bowie starring The Man who fell to Earth still challenging audience’s expectations to this day. Don’t Look Now is also a tough watch, however it is anchored by two excellent performances by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. In fact, after the first ten minutes of horror where John discovers his daughter has drowned in a very alarming sequence, the next act of the film could almost be a drama about a couple trying to keep their marriage working after such a tragic event. The dialogue and the scenes that follow, including the controversial (at the time) sex scene, have a documentary feel to them and you almost forget that you’re supposed to be watching a horror film.
As the plot develops and things turn darker and more foreboding, there is a palpable sense of dread that remains until the shocking conclusion. It isn’t helped that Venice (traditionally filmed as if it is a paradise on water or a place for James Bond to run around in), looks rather nightmarish. It is mostly shot at night and there are plenty of scenes with Donald Sutherland walking around, waiting for something horrible to jump out in the shadows, with oddball locals leering at him from out of their windows. With a serial killer on the loose and a figure with a red mac running around, the film doesn’t make you want to visit Venice anytime soon.
The conclusion is as famous as the beginning of the film and was unfortunately spoiled for me when Channel 4 liked to screen shows such as, 100 Scariest Moments, so I won’t talk about it too much, however even knowing what happens at the end, I still find it terrifying and my heart was pounding in the final ten minutes. It is as memorable and shocking an ending as the finale to The Wicker Man and like the lady in Room 237 in The Shining, it is the part of the film I dread the most.
Despite the film being leisurely-paced, it is a story that draws you in and demands repeat viewings to work out all of the clues to where it is all heading. It truly is a horror film unlike anything else in the genre and it is both terrifying and moving in its portrayal of grief. Don’t Look Now looks stunning on the big screen and has lost none of its power to intrigue and shock.