Don’t Look Now (1973) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 24

by Jovial Jay

Grief can make you do strange things, but don’t look now! It’s your dead child running amok in Venice!

Don’t Look Now is a moody and atmospheric look at grief and the grieving process, specifically focused on the parents of a young girl. It uses all the tools at the filmmakers disposal to create a narrative that engages the audience while creating ambiguity of the story, mirroring the emotional track of the characters.

Before Viewing

I honestly don’t remember anything about this film, having seen it 30 years ago in college. Based on the description and trailer, it looks like a grieving couple, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, travel to Venice looking to find a connection to their dead daughter as provided by a psychic. They keep seeing a little girl in a red coat that looks like their daughter. Much anguish befalls them. Not sure how this one is gonna go, so let’s actually look now!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

Don't Look Now

Don’t Look Now title card.

After Viewing

After the tragic drowning of their young daughter Christine (Sharon Williams), John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland & Julie Christie) travel to Venice, Italy for John’s work. He’s repairing a church for a Bishop (Massimo Serato) he’s friends with. One day at lunch Laura meets two sisters, also from England, Wendy (Clelia Matania) and Heather (Hilary Mason). Heather, who is blind and claims psychic powers, tells Laura that she can see the Baxter’s daughter standing between them, warning them to leave Venice.

Laura is transformed by this news, coming out of her depression, while John thinks the woman’s claims are a load of bunk. That is, until one evening as they are attempting to find a restaurant and become lost in the alleys. John has a weird sense of déja vu and catches a glimpse of a small figure in a red coat zipping over the bridge. He tries to follow but the labyrinthian streets and canals make it impossible.

Laura meets with the sisters the next day to take part in a seance. She is told that Christine is warning John to leave Venice as he is in grave danger. At the church he is working in John has an accident and nearly falls off the scaffolding. He believes this event to be the danger that was presaged. The Baxter’s then receive a call that their son Johnny has been hurt back at his school in England, and Laura departs without haste, begging John to come too. He declines, saying he’ll follow along shortly.

Don't Look Now

The reflection of Christine shortly before she dies.

Later that day John witnesses a body pulled from a canal – another victim of a serial killer striking Venice. He also sees Laura and the two sisters on a boat in the canal. Unable to track her or the sisters down, he stops by the police and reports her missing. When he calls to check in on Johnny he’s shocked to learn that she’s still in England, planning to come back soon. Meanwhile the sisters are arrested and brought in for questioning.

John apologizes to the police and the sisters, as he escorts Heather back to her hotel. She begins to have a seizure and John leaves. Heather calls for him to come back to no avail. Again, John sees the small figure in the red coat and shouts for her to stop. He follows it through many alleys, and foggy buildings.

When he confronts it, instead of a vision of his daughter, it’s a wizened female dwarf. She pulls a cleaver out of her jacket pocket and hacks into his neck. As he lays dying, he realizes that the visions of Christine and Laura were visions of his death. The film ends with Laura and the two sisters riding on a boat in a funeral procession, just as John had seen earlier.

She says Venice is like a city in aspic, wrapped over from a dinner party, where all the guests are dead or gone.” – Heather

Don't Look Now

Mirrors play an important role in this film. Here Laura talks with the two sisters about their vision of Christine.

Don’t Look Now is an eerie, slow-burn of a horror film. Director Nicolas Roeg uses numerous visual motifs, music and non-linear editing to enhance the dreamlike quality of the film. As such, the film conveys an atmosphere of grief and foreboding unlike other horror films that affect audiences with jump scares.

As with other psychological horror films I’ve investigated this October, reflections and duality are an important motif in Don’t Look Now. Every character is reflected at some point during the film, starting with shots of young Christine in her distinctive red raincoat running along the banks of the pond. A majority of the meeting with Wendy, Heather and Laura in the bathroom takes place in the multiple dressing mirrors. And later John is reflected several times in windows, water and mirrors. The duplicitous nature of these shots provides a subtle sense of unease and non-reality to the film.

But reflections are not the only types of doppelgangers in the film. Of course the biggest gotcha is the figure in the red jacket. Audiences assume that it’s either John’s imagination manifest for all to see, or perhaps the spirit of Christine leading John to safety. In reality it’s actually a murderous dwarf, responsible for other killings sprinkled throughout the film that coincidentally is dressed like his dead daughter. A reflection of his memory, but not the same thing. There’s also some minor riffs on this “copy of an original” motif. Laura comments in a letter to their son that she “can’t tell the difference” between repaired windows and the originals John is working on. John mentions while working on the church restoration that he’s working on a “fake,” in reference to some of the artwork on the walls. Later when he gets some sample pieces to replace in the mosaics, he can’t believe how closely they match the original. Again, subtle clues that the things the audience is witnessing may not be real.

Don't Look Now

Laura tells John how happy she is knowing that Christine is with them.

Additionally, from a filmic perspective, Roeg uses non-linear editing to crete echoes in the film, and place events outside of time. The first hint audiences get that Roeg is trying to create a sense of precognition with his editing style is when Christine falls into the lake. John spills a drink on a slide that features the red hood of his daughter in a church. The colors of the slide appear to run, as blood. The intercutting of the film jumps between Christine playing and John, until he immediately stands up and runs out of the house, knowing something is wrong. This premonition, revealed through the editing of the film, is foreshadowing of the images he sees in Venice. It’s easy to take everything that John experiences and sees in Venice at face value. The shot of Laura on the boat with the sisters appears like any other shot. However on second viewing, the viewer can recontextualize the shot. The camera drifts behind John, blocking the frame for a moment, drifting out and seeing Laura and the sisters in a close to medium shot, with no other reference. John runs to the back of the boat, but there’s never a wide shot showing the relationship between him and the other boat, or reactions from other characters. It’s subtle and intended to obfuscate the events, rather than enlighten.

People coming to this film looking to be scared outright are in for a surprise. This is a spine-tingling, slow reveal sort of film, where the terror is on the fringes and only made clear as the audience puts the pieces together. It’s also a beautifully shot film that uses a whole host of techniques, from narrative to technical, to tell a story uniquely in this medium.

Don't Look Now

John continues to see a small figure in a red cloak, that he mistakes for his dead daughter.

Assorted Musings

  • Donald Sutherland has appeared in several horror films including Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Puppet Masters (an inspired remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
  • The original story the film is based on comes from Daphne du Maurier, best known for her adaptations brought to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock, which include Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963).

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