When mainstream publications make best-of lists pertaining to horror films, there are always a number of mainstays you can expect to see in the perceived top ten. These films include The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, Alien, and Psycho, and even some slightly less-lauded entrees like David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly and The Omen are likely to show up, too.
There is one particularly great horror film, however, that is sorely left off many of these lists—largely because it was out-of-print for a small eternity. What’s more, the film has also been massively influential on other filmmakers and has aged better than most of its contemporaries.
Don’t Look Now, a 1973 British film directed by Nicolas Roeg and adapted from an eponymous Daphne du Maurier story, is one of the most psychological and mournful genre films of any era. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie star as the married couple of John and Laura Baxter, who go on a business trip to Venice after the sudden death of their child. Both of them are understandably grieving, but their turmoil increases after meeting with two sisters at a restaurant. One of the sisters claims to be a psychic and says that she foresees their child talking to them from beyond the grave. The two then begin to see strange images throughout the twisty streets of Venice.
Nicolas Roeg was likely the most fascinating filmmaker in the UK during the 1970s. Working as a cinematographer throughout the 1960s on beloved films such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Masque of the Red Death, Roeg had already developed an auteur sensibility by the time he co-directed Performance in 1968. Afterwards, he would helm the masterful Walkabout, which is still probably the most beautiful film ever shot in Australia, and later would direct David Bowie in the sci-fi cult favorite, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Time-and-time again Roeg proved he was a director with an affinity for striking viscera, elliptic narratives, and a frankness towards sex and violence that never felt gratuitous. Don’t Look Now was possibly the apex of his artistry, and just like all of his best films, it hardly feels like a piece of genre.
As one may ascertain from the synopsis, Don’t Look Now is about grief, but it applies this to the concept of marriage and how it can take a toll on one’s mental-health. Utilizing an editing style that was simply decades ahead of its time, Don’t Look Now really communicates on the tortured state of its characters. There are many flashbacks and flash-forwards, along with inter-cut sequences that were fairly nightmarish. The film consistently asks its viewers to double-check the reality of the film and how much of it might just be perceived by the grief-addled characters. It was an enormous achievement to make such complex cuts at a time that pre-dated the MTV generation, and it found its psychological backbone in the Freudian playground that is Venice.
It wasn’t the first film to make characteristic use of the city of Venice, but Roeg applied a tone to it that really made du Maurier’s prose jump to the screen. Water is used as a chief motif throughout the film, which enhances the ghostly quality of the imagery that John Baxter sees with increasing frequency throughout the film.
The labyrinthine architecture of the city also makes for a most abstract set-piece, and it leads to great ends during the movie’s shocking climax. Roeg also proved himself a deft trickster with some rather unorthodox attempts at getting under his viewers’ psyches. For example, often the film would present Italian characters speaking in their language but without subtitles, which was intended to make the viewer feel as alienated in this location as John and Laura. It’s these degrees of subtlety and minimalist construct that Don’t Look Now found transgression in.
In terms of influence, there’s no doubt that many of the methods Roeg used in Don’t Look Now made it into other films in the 43 years past its release. The editing style is very similar to the trademark ones of director’s like Danny Boyle and Darren Aronofsky, who applied their own visceral aesthetics to it. Also, Jonathan Glazer used a similar method to alienate viewers to the film’s world in his sci-fi thriller Under the Skin, which intentionally sought out rough Scottish accents that would be hard for viewers to understand. Also, Lars von Trier pretty much shamelessly stole the concept for Don’t Look Now for his film Antichrist, which was also about a married couple struggling after the death of a child.
So why, despite its unprecedented craft and seminal value, was Don’t Look Now relegated to obscurity outside of cinephile circles for almost four decades? Well, primarily, it was so controversial that its release was very limited, mainly due to the film’s graphic sex scene. The tryst between John and Laura, which happens within the film’s first act, didn’t leave much to the imagination and even contained a shot of cunninglingus, which was almost unheard of for non-pornographic cinema at the time. The sex scene controversy even eclipsed amidst rumors that it was unsimulated and that Christie and Sutherland were actually having an affair.
Today though, such outrage seems preposterous; while the scene is still explicit, it also ranks as one of the gentlest love scenes ever shot. It’s here that we see the two characters at their healthiest, in both body and mind, and there isn’t a single thrust (no pun intended … I don’t think so anyway) that seems to come off as brash. The score supplied by Pino Donaggio, a popular Venetian singer/composer of the time, is also very graceful and lightly pretty, making for a scene that feels more naturalistic than erotic. Whether or not it was the result of Sutherland and Christie having an onscreen romantic tryst (I personally doubt it), it ranks as one of the most idiosyncratic and loving sex scenes ever put to film.
Recently released by Criterion after being out of print for over a decade, Don’t Look Now has been receiving a bit of a resurgence in the cinematic community. With its significance more lucid than ever, and the fact that it remains so genuinely scary, the film is probably the most accessible and satisfying film in Roeg’s filmography. Now really is the perfect time to discover Roeg’s masterpiece, and hey, it could just make for the most subversive Halloween screening you’ve ever had!
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.