The four movies that Nicolas Roeg directed (or co-directed) in the 1970s are the films on which his reputation is built; Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. While all very different, they are all generally strange, often disturbing and incredibly distinctive visually. For me, Don’t Look Now is the best of the lot – a slow burner of a movie, hugely atmospheric and genuinely scary. I remember watching it for the first time on TV late at night, and lying awake for hours afterwards, unable to sleep.
Don’t Look Now opens with the drowning of the young daughter of John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie). Despite John’s premonition that something is wrong, he arrives too late at the pond outside their family home, and can only rescue the body of his little girl, wrapped in her bright red macintosh (this becomes the defining image of the film).
Consumed by grief, John and Laura travel to Venice, where John, an architect, is working on the restoration of a church. Getting away may seem like a chance to put things behind them, but Off-season Venice is portrayed as a doomy, decaying place, an impression not helped by the bodies they keep pulling out of the canal – there’s a serial killer at large in the city.
At their hotel the Baxters meet a pair of English ladies. One, who is blind, claims to be a psychic. She says she has spoken to their daughter, and that she is telling them they must leave Venice. John is shaken by the strange things he keeps seeing – a small figure in a red coat that keeps disappearing out of sight, his wife on a Gondola after she said she was returning to England. The sense of foreboding builds and builds, until the end where it has to break.
Don’t Look Now is shot in an impressionistic style, jumping about in chronology and leaving many elements unexplained until they all click into place in the final moments. It’s not a straight up horror film; there are a Hitchcock-esque thriller elements and it’s also a fantastic portrayal of grief, with both leads giving brilliant performances.
That Film Guy is going to tell you Don’t Look Now doesn’t make the Top 10 Best Horror Films List. But don’t believe a word of it – this deserves to be right up there at the top – it has a superb story, the direction is ambitious (not something often associated with the horror genre), the acting is top quality and there are genuine scares. What more do you want? One of the most controversial sex scenes in mainstream cinema history? Well it’s got that too if that’s your thing.
The fact that the key motif of Don’t Look Now – the little girl in the red mac – is still instantly familiar almost forty years on is testament to the movie’s power and longetivity. It still feels fresh and innovative, and frightening.