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The Halloween season is upon us. As someone who loves horror films in all their numerous guises – good or bad, old or new, trashy or ‘serious’ – this is one of my favourite times of the year. That’s why I’m taking this opportunity to explore a horror masterpiece that is far too often overlooked.
Daphne du Maurier’s stories fared well for Alfred Hitchcock. Rebecca and The Birds have rightfully been regarded as classics, two fine works in his exceptionally stellar oeuvre. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Jamaica Inn. It is, however, unwise to allow one bad apple to spoil the bunch. Nevertheless, it is Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant imagining of du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now that is arguably the most impressive.
A short while after their daughter accidentally drowns in the garden pond, art restorer John Baxter (Donald “Kiefer’s dad” Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) travel to Venice in the off-season to renovate an old church and try to recover from their grief. What should be a beautiful, tranquil city is instead filled with lonely canals and eccentric characters, including a pair of sisters, one of whom is a blind psychic and claims to be able to communicate with their deceased child: “The one who’s blind. She’s the one that can see.”
What makes the film work is the painfully convincing relationship at its heart. Both Sutherland and Christie are excellent as the parents who exhibit all the emblematic emotions: despair, desperation, denial and, eventually, acceptance. Controversy surrounded the film over a notorious sex scene, which, for the time, was very graphic. It is, however, intercut with shots of the couple getting ready to go out for dinner; this disjointed style of editing depicts the parents carrying on as usual but also demonstrates that the familiar is now unfamiliar. Their effort to return to work and normal lives shortly after the loss of their daughter is admirable but ultimately foolish: death is harder to escape from than they think, both in their past and their present.
The city of Venice itself becomes a character in its own right; its sense of haunted isolation parallels the grieving couple’s collective psyches. The numerous labyrinthine waterways and dark alleys leading to further indistinguishable locations, or, indeed, leading back to the starting point, create confusion, anxiety and fear. Venice has trapped the couple, its cold beauty a façade for the terrifying disturbance underneath: John and Laura do not know what is around the next corner and neither do we.
Don’t Look Now illustrates Roeg’s characteristically non-linear style of storytelling, with temporal truncations and frenetic cuts enhancing the feeling of palpable dread that permeates every scene, leading to an unforgettable and chilling conclusion. Like the mosaics John restores, it is a film of fragments: fragments of a past life meet fragments of an experience that is left to the audience to decipher. It is a master class in the use of colour, sound and imagery that is simultaneously beautiful and devastating, creating a tangible atmosphere of psychological unease, and, in turn, making it a truly classic horror.