I can never seem to put the perfect words together in order to describe what it is that Nicolas Roeg’s classic has left upon me on subsequent revisits – for I only look back at Don’t Look Now with an impression that I had grossly understated what defines it, in my eyes, as the greatest horror film to have ever been made. Many traces of wonder are laced everywhere from the first frame to the last, all of which overwhelm me all the more when I revisit it, in fact my first impression was something I was unready for to the point I never knew what to make of it then. But it hit me soon enough why Don’t Look Now left that sort of impact on me, and within no time it was a solidified favourite of my very own. There is nothing that scares me in life other than what is set to come. All my deepest fears conjured into place, all the more reason to be mesmerized by its beauty.
Our first shot after the title card shows a young girl – the daughter of John and Laura Baxter. In fact, we see two children together, a boy and a girl. Before we cut to the parents, who are played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, a peculiar image comes by that soon signifies what is set to come – it is a reflection in the water. We see that the couple are distanced from one another up until one moment comes at the most unexpected, the daughter drowns in an accident at their country home. Grief-stricken, the couple take a trip to Italy, where Laura meets a pair of elderly sisters. One of them is blind, and she claims to be a psychic, and she tells Laura that she is able to “see” her late daughter. Laura is shaken, for her encounter signifies a stage of grief has run its course.
Grief is the main motif that fills Don’t Look Now – after the Baxters’ daughter has passed away. From the visibly discomforting and alienated performances of both Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, it is clear already what Nicolas Roeg is trying to establish – the couple are only all the more distanced from one another because of how much they have been terribly struck. Yet Roeg’s movement around the couples’ grief is where the unsettling atmosphere arises all the more. It is not until a noted sex scene where its impact only becomes clearer, for Pino Donaggio’s melancholy score adds more emotion, in which the highlight becomes the frequent cutting back and forth between the activity amidst the sex and afterwards: allowing room for another one of the film’s motifs, the past and how it plays its effect upon future. It is never erotic, but instead it is painful in the sense that it brings the feeling of grief upon oneself – and if the result is forewarned, it is only all the more frightening to see it up close.
What is also fitting is the film’s setting in Venice, for in the prologue what we also witness a clever sense of foreshadow. It is not only apparent in what the colour red is highlighting, but also from where the daughter’s death has brought the couple. She has drowned, but the fact Venice is a city immersed in water highlights a greater danger for our couple. Nicolas Roeg not only manages to utilize beautiful set pieces in order to give the film the distinctive visual appeal which it carries, but at the same time what he also is willing to present is one of the film’s many outstanding qualities: the fact that it always makes danger so apparent wherever one goes. And with the intercutting of both past and future within the visions of John Baxter as he wanders through Rome, it also raises a specific question – when is the appropriate time to “look?” Is one too caught up in the past to that point they are only seeing their future, an impending sense of doom?
And suddenly, everything becomes clear from the twist ending hits. A figure comes by to put everything into place. What confused us all beforehand, suddenly is made much clearer with the ending. All of the film’s themes come together into an overwhelming climax. The cycle of grief has run its course. We knew something was coming, and yet we never wanted it to. What only appeared at first as extremely discomforting suddenly turns into an explosion of everything that the film has only been working its way to collect right before our eyes, and yet it may have slipped past us because we are so caught up inside a specific realm. We were caught inside of this realm of pain and loss, we only have lost track of what is happening all around us. And soon it only unleashed what it is that I was fearing most. What I was fearing, in that sense, is none other than a known future. A known future, describing all the sorrows that our lives have never been willing to prepare us for.
The moment in which I first saw Nicolas Roeg’s classic, I knew already that there was nothing else out there like it. Upon subsequent revisits, I can already understand why there was nothing else out there like it, and the unexpected nature of its delivery has only caught me more. It was collecting everything that I have feared most in life and ultimately unleashing it, to the point it becomes a scar in my head. And there were hints laced everywhere, but we have only willingly ignored them because we were so overcome with what we are feeling. What started off for myself as one of the most disorienting experiences that I have ever had with watching any film, suddenly works its way to become one of the most frightening of all my life. The title told us, don’t look now. We only looked at past and future. And yet never present, because we already feel doom coming our way for future is set to become present at another point in time. It is for reasons beyond these, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is not only my favourite horror film of all time, but one of the most life-changing experiences that all of cinema has brought upon me.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount.
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay by Alan Scott, Chris Bryant, from the short story by Daphne du Maurier
Produced by Peter Katz
Starring Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie
Release Year: 1973
Running Time: 110 minutes