There must have been something in the air in 1973 when it came to the horror genre. The Exorcist was about to scare the hell out of audiences with its intensity and confrontational nature, the following years proving that William Friedkin’s film has the ability to lose none of its power.
The same year saw Nicholas Roeg premiere a genre film of his own; equally shocking but in a less confrontational matter and one which would contain a sense of ethereal beauty and emotion compared to Friedkin’s possession shocker.
It’s not very often that a horror genre film can find a way to evoke emotion in its beauty, but then again Don’t Look Now is not a straightforward horror film. Iconic, frightening, and with one of the most famous (or infamous) love scenes in movie history, Nicholas Roeg’s film has stood the test of time and retained its place deservedly in the pantheon of great genre cinema.
Grabbing much attention at the time due to the intimate and explicit nature of its love scene, something that it still retains today, there is so much more to Roeg’s film than just an explicit scene. In the pantheon of genre cinema it is without a doubt one of the greats; a film that has great beauty and emotion on top of some of the most chilling imagery that the genre has ever given us.
Don’t Look Now was released in the UK with an “X” certificate by the BBFC and was the subject of many a piece during the 90s whenever the BBC or Channel 4 devoted a weekend of programming to the practices of the BBFC or their eagerness to ban films of a controversial nature. It may never have been withdrawn from public viewing in the way that The Exorcist or Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs was, but there had always been an element of it that saw it lumped in with many of the most shocking films that gave the BBFC headaches in the 1970s. But the truth is Don’t Look Now is never a film that feels as if it’s going for controversy or shock value. There is too much sad beauty at its heart.
There are shocking moments for sure, but they are chilling and atmospheric as opposed to gory or repulsive, factoring its story through character and emotion, backed by wonderful direction from Roeg, career-best work from Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, gorgeous photography from Anthony B Richmond, amazingly elliptical editing from Graeme Clifford and the most gorgeous music score imaginable by Pino Donnagio, who would go on to score a plethora of Brian De Palma films after this.
Centred around the relationship of Laura and John Baxter, grieving for the loss of their daughter – as distressing an opening to a movie as one could imagine, not least in that slow-motion reveal of John rising from the water, his daughter in his arms wearing the now infamous red coat – the couple embark to Venice as John attempts to restore and repair an old Church. Meanwhile Laura meets two sisters, one of whom is blind and claims to be psychic and in contact with the spirit of their deceased daughter.
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Anybody going into Don’t Look Now expecting an Exorcist or something on a par with other challenging films of the era may come away a tad disappointed. It has the ability to shock, but shock value is not what it sets out to do. The scares work because of how well it manages to marry its genre elements to its character and plot development; none of it would matter if we didn’t care for John and Laura.
Sutherland and Christie’s performances, as well as the manner in which the script from Chris Bryant and Allan Scott has written them, carry the film in the most beautiful way, which is probably why the love scene between them dominates the conversation. Even in the opening scene when we are first introduced to them, we feel their connection and the marriage and partnership that they have; and when we see them make love, edited alongside them afterward when they are getting ready for a night out, it feels intimate and real and raw in a way we seldom ever see sex or a marriage on-screen.
No wonder everyone thought it was real. It felt real and the performances from them are so good that we buy everything about them whenever they are on-screen, from their happiness to their anger to their sadness to their connection and their marriage.
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Of course, being a genre film, we have come for scares and they are there in subtle abundance. Vienna looks gorgeous but it also looks haunted, which is really saying something because the most frightening section of the film takes places when the streets are deserted and as gothic as anything put on-screen before.
The film asks deep questions about the nature of grief, premonitions, and love, all of which coalesce during its incredibly powerful climax. On top of featuring one of the most frightening images ever put to film, it also features a powerful crescendo that it has been building to in front of our very eyes throughout the entire running time, where love, loss, and death meet head-on in the middle of those Viennese canals.
As for that frightening image? One gets the sense throughout of the film building to something: the haunting image of a little girl in a red coat has primed the audience for a father/daughter reunion. Instead the spectre of a serial killer hunting the streets of the city comes crashing into our hearts as John finds himself the killer’s next victim. The reveal of his murderer is one of horror cinema’s most genuinely frightening and disturbing moments; a moment of severe jolt when one realises what we’ve actually been building up to, who the girl in the red coat is and the nature of John’s weird encounter with his wife and the sisters on a passing boat on the canals.
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It is, in a word, masterful. It’s mixes a chiller narrative and a love story that feels truly real in a way we seldom ever get anymore. Yes, it may be a cliché to say “they don’t make them like they used to,” but we never get a genre film like this anymore, where it can sear imagery like this one’s most infamous into your head, but leaves you wanting to think about the relationship at the heart of it as much as the jolt.
Forty-five years after its release, Don’t Look Now has lost none of its power, either as a horror film, or as deeply emotional drama on the sadness of lost or even, cheesy as it sounds, the power of love and devotion. That it can still retain that level of power after so long, and shows no signs of actually losing it, says so much about how great this really is.