Nicolas Roeg is nothing if not an original filmmaker. His horror-thriller Don’t Look Now is no exception. Following John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie), the film utilizes his trademark style in a truly chilling fashion. After their daughter dies in a tragic accident, the Baxter’s head to Venice for John’s work restoring an old church, and it is there that Laura meets a blind psychic. Warning her that John must leave Venice or die, the Baxter’s write off her premonition as absurd. However, as John follows around a mysterious figure in a red coat – exactly like the one his daughter wore when she drowned – and odd happenings plague both them and the city, it becomes increasingly clear that Venice is a dead end for the Baxters.
From those opening, horrifying moments as their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) drowns in their backyard, Don’t Look Now is an incredibly ethereal, mystic, and jarring work. Roeg cuts rapidly between John working on a photograph, their son breaking a mirror, Christine playing near the water, John knocking over a glass, and then a panicked reaction shot of John as he feels something wrong. Via the use of typical “bad luck” iconography, an apparent psychic pull to check on Christine, and a jarring visual style, Don’t Look Now’s opening sets its course in a variety of ways. Either through the blind psychic Heather (Hilary Mason) or John’s own visions, Don’t Look Now is cloaked in fatalism.
The streets of Venice look dark, the walls are cracking, and a murderer is leaving bodies in the waterways. At work, John tries to restore a 16th-century church. John’s haunting visions of a child-like figure and the prophecy of his death only further add to the stench of death in Venice. The city is like a living coffin with its claustrophobic alleyways and aged architecture, trapping John in a place that he cannot escape. It is as though he has lived his life for these moments, caught in a fated pull to his own demise. He is unconsciously aware of this, chasing after the small figure he sees and obsessing over the bodies pulled out of the river. It as though he knows what is awaiting him in Venice, even if consciously he denies the plausibility of such an event.
Visually, Roeg’s style complements this ethereal feeling. Frequently using superimpositions, he overlays the face of Heather’s sister Wendy (Clelia Matania) on the screen moments before John nearly has an accident. By the waterways, John sees somebody walking by and suddenly Christine’s reflection appears. Roeg consistently ties these moments to prophecies or traumatic events, right up until the final scene. The camera dives into John’s mind – with occasional, spiraling pseudo-POV shots – and quickly cuts around between John’s prior premonitions, his current situation, the broken glass in the opening, or the bleeding of red hues in a photograph. Beforehand, cross-cuts from Heather to John’s trance-like state instill a feeling of immense dread. The bad luck, fatalism, grief, and visions come together in a very tangible way to spell out John’s coming demise – if only he had been able to piece the mystery together before it was too late.
Roeg smartly weaves these visions and John’s potential fate into the opening scene, exploring the destructive power of grief. Laura is initially wracked with it, but comes to terms with Christine’s death via the assistance of Heather and Wendy. Julie Christie powerfully captures the peace felt by Laura as Heather describes seeing a laughing Christine. It brings a lightness to her, something that she carries throughout, even as she goes back to England to ensure their son is safe after an accident. Meanwhile, John is consistently morose. His focus is on how Laura is dealing with Christine’s death, consistently overlooking his own pain and trauma in a futile effort to save her. Sutherland’s downtrodden mood is worn all over his face, while Roeg demonstrates how this inability to let go dooms him to his ultimate fate. The visions of a Christine-like child running about and his haunting memories of finding her drive him right into the path of the Venice murderer.
These chilling visual touches, the performances of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, and the powerful examination of grief’s destructive power all give Don’t Look Now an unsettling atmosphere. Eerie and complex, Nicolas Roeg’s beguiling work is one of the seminal horror films of all time. Roeg’s hard cuts, extreme close-ups, superimpositions, cross-cutting, and the production design build an uneasy ambience, one that perfectly fits the themes and ideas he is examining.Don’t Look Now provides a unique and ominous viewing experience, one that is as haunting as it is thought-provoking.