Don’t Look Now is a psychological horror film from the 70’s. My knowledge of film is another gift from Internet as I found it referenced in an article discussing obscure or under-appreciated horror movies. Otherwise, I was unaware that it existed. It stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as John and Laura Baxter. It is about a couple dealing with the loss of their daughter, the psychological turmoil that terrible event creates and hope in the supernatural.
A Family’s Grief
The film begins in England, where their daughter Christine plays too close to a pond. She wears a red rain-jacket, which is a reoccurring image throughout the film. She falls in and drowns. Flashing forward, the couple take an extended trip to Venice as an opportunity to start over. Their son, also John, remains behind in boarding school.
Big John take a job renovating an old cathedral. One day, Laura encounter two ladies at a restaurant, one of the ladies is blind. She claims to be psychic and that she was able to see Christine laughing and smiling as she sat between John and Laura. Laura wants to believe. As she returns to John, she faints, taking the table with her.
John doesn’t believe any of it, but fails to confess that he too has seen the red rain slicker in photographs and glimpses of reality around Venice. It is hard to tell at this point if he is hiding his true feelings, or simply trying to preserve Laura’s sanity. Laura runs into the psychic ladies again. The blind woman is named Heather (Hilary Mason). Her sister is Clelia. This time Laura asks Heather if there is anyway to talk to Christine from beyond the grave. They make not promises, but agree to have her over for coffee.
Again, John pushes back, but ultimately lets Laura attend the seance as a means to appease her. Laura learns from Heather that John has second-sight as well and Christine is warning of danger to ‘John’.
The next day they learn that there was a an accident involving their son John at the boarding school. This further fortifies the idea in Laura’s head that Christine is communicating from the dead. Laura leaves for England to visit her son, with plans to join her husband when he can arrange. Then husband John, has an accident at the cathedral when a platform he is standing on collapses.
Don’t Look Now – The Red Raincoat
John prepares to join Laura in England when he sees her pass on a boat going the other way. She is with the two psychic ladies on what appears to be a funeral boat. He checks back at the hotel to see if she has been there. Eventually, John goes to the police because there is a serial killer on the prowl in Venice. John tells the police what he knows. He even provides a description of Heather.
The police are suspicious of John so the inspector has him followed. While John tries to find his wife and the psychic sisters, he sees another glimpse of Christine’s red coat. He reaches out to the boarding school to check on his son and finds his son in perfect health. Laura is at his side in England. John returns to the police to call off the search when he learns that the police are holding Heather. He apologizes for the inconvenience and walks her home.
After he leaves, he sees the girl in the red raincoat again. This time, he pursues her into a corner. As the figure turns around, it is an old woman with cleaver or knife. She chops open John’s throat and he dies. Christine warned John from beyond the grave.
Brilliant Execution, Failed Landing
Don’t Look Now is an artful approach to psychological horror. It succeeds on many fronts, but it also fails in one significant aspect. This film does as a tremendous job of depicting the anguish of losing a child. Upon finding his daughter in the pond, Donald Sutherland completely embodies the the horror and pain of finding their daughter dead.
The interplay between Laura and John as they navigate the sorrow of their loss is believable. They toe the line between subtle tension and total breakdown of their relationship.
Don’t Look Now does a tremendous job creating tension. Sometime the tension builds and there is release, like a flash of red raincoat. Sometimes it just dissipates as a false alarm. The character of Heather carriers an air of mystery as well as eminence of goodness. The cinematography is exquisite. The cameras take full advantage of darkened silhouettes of Venice alleyways. Wide shot framing adds the feeling of an immense labyrinth of the the cities streets and canals.
Don’t Look Now – Sexy Time Controversy
A discussion of Don’t Look Now is not complete without mentioning the controversial sex scene. In 1973, there were still rules about how sex was to be depicted in film. It is how we ended up with 1000’s of movies depicting sex in the same unrealistic way. Think Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis in Top Gun. Director Nicolas Roeg went for realism. The scene itself is not overly explicit, but it deals directly with the reality of the act as John goes down on Lauren. It shows the thrusting of hips and the friction of love-making. It is all too real, and therefore it riles puritanical sensibilities.
I found it to be a very effective device for showing that their relationship is much like all of ours in love, sex and loss. This type of scene has been often repeated since, Viggo Mortenson and Maria Bello in A History of Violence comes to mind. But, at the time, this was ground breaking stuff.
For all that was wonderful about this film, I simply felt cheated at the end. The surprise of the old woman in rain coat was about as profound and thought provoking as a jack-in-box. It seems ridiculous that 40″ tall woman could be haunting the streets of Venice with a meat cleaver.
I would have expect the serial killer sub-plot to be more relevant to the overall story instead of being an “Oh, by the way…” halfway through the film. Psychological horror films all to often paint themselves in the corner, requiring a twist in the end to sort it all out. Also in the psychological horror sub-genre, Carnival of Souls (1962) runs into a similar problem.
Regardless of its failure at the end, the movie is worth watching. It tackles a terrible topic that hopefully none of us ever have to deal with; the loss of a child. This horrible event lays the foundation for a rich tapestry of mystery, supernatural and emotional story telling. The movie was filmed with a passion for creating a brooding atmosphere out of an otherwise beautiful backdrop. It is this passion allows it to overcome its weaknesses. It’s not perfect, but it is well done.
Don't Look Now (1973) - The Psychology of Grief - Malevolent Dark
Director: Nicholas Roeg
Date Created: 1973-01-01 00:00