“What is it you fear?”
For many of a certain generation, myself included, the first time they had ever heard about 1973’s Don’t Look Now was on Bravo. The channel was doing a horror compilation clip series centering on the greatest horror moments in movie history and had chosen the film’s ending for inclusion on their impressive list. I can’t recall where in the lineup Don’t Look Now featured, but I do remember being so shaken by the ending, that it haunted me even though I had almost no clue about its context. Even describing the ending scene to friends elicited reactions of fright. Ever since then, whenever I’ve seen Don’t Look Now mentioned, it’s almost always its ending that gets cited. Watching it on Criterion’s new Blu-ray release, it’s still just as powerful. However, what many who saw the infamous clip on the Bravo segment failed to realize, was that leading up to that ending was one of the most poignant and slightly chilling tales about ghosts and romance ever made.
When the tragic death of their young daughter disrupts the tranquil life of Laura (Julie Christie) and John (Donald Sutherland), the couple tries to move on by relocating to Venice where John’s current job of restoring an old church keeps them distracted from dealing with the event. However, a series of murders, a chance meeting with a psychic named Heather (Hilary Mason), and the presence of a small child in a red raincoat all lead the couple to suspect that their daughter is still around and is still trying to reach them.
Don’t Look Now has rightfully been considered one of the greatest ghost stories of the 1970s, if not the 20th century. This was the case almost immediately from its initial release. But the film isn’t the conventional kind of ghost story with spooky apparitions running around. True, a small figure resembling the dead child can be seen scurrying the streets of Venice, but it’s the atmosphere and the way director Nicolas Roeg captures it that brings the chills. Following a brilliant intro, the movie’s eeriness wastes no time being front and center. The introduction of Heather intensely staring at John from across the restaurant is punctuated with off-putting angles and inventive use of mirrors. Brief glimpses from what appears to be the ghost of the dead child aside, the old Venetian buildings give off such a surreal darkness that only aids the efforts of the story and allows for plenty of the sort of interesting zooms and far away shots Roeg indulges in, all of which keeps the audience on their toes.
As the film progresses, it starts to go for broke in several ways without compromising its beauty and quiet haunted quality. There’s a great amount of suspense in the extended church sequence where John is dangling from a rope attached to the scaffold as the result of a mishap. What seems like an accident can’t help but feel like the spirit of the dead child seeking revenge on the father who failed to protect her when she needed him to. Later on, the fleeting sight of a woman who looks like Laura on the gondola with Heather is where the turn really happens for John. From here, everything about the landscape changes on him and everyone he encounters looks at him suspiciously, harkening back to an earlier piece of advice from the psychic that he should leave. A late-in-the-game phone call with Laura in which she prattles on but he is unable to hear her clearly shows that his sanity is being tested and that he is being haunted, whether he knows it or not.
But Don’t Look Now is the story of a marriage above all else. It’s the story of two people who experience passion, despair, and the widest of gulfs that could destroy a couple this much in love. There’s a slightly closed-off feeling we get when we first meet John and Laura. Even though we spend very little time with them before their daughter’s death, it’s enough to suggest that they are the only ones who exist in their world. Post-tragedy, the pair are seen as a couple getting on with things. Yet their clinging to each other in the aftermath of their child’s demise is sending them in opposite directions, even though their chemistry and their shine as a couple remains the biggest constant in their lives even after everything that’s happened. The film’s iconic love scene remains that; a sensual and beautiful sequence that shows a couple both in love and trying to survive the shared tragedy they’ve gone through. John and Laura appear open enough to talk freely about their past, but as the world around them begins to transform, death and the past appear to be intent on tearing them apart.
Much like the Daphne DuMaurier short story it came from, Don’t Look Now certainly pulls a hat trick in terms of the genre it belongs to. The film’s murder sub-plot (a string of random killings are taking place around Venice, further putting Laura and John on edge) feels like an element that’s meant to be a key part of the story but is only present when another character brings it up. This hurts the film but doesn’t succeed in taking away from it thanks to its portrait of a fractured marriage and the two haunted figures at its center. If I sounded a little flippant earlier about the ending of Don’t Look Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to dismiss the story’s conclusion, but instead, explore how both the romance and the sense of feeling haunted only help to elevate the ending even further than before. Today, the ending manages to feel even more pulsating and riveting than it ever has. Thanks to the sounds of footsteps the water flowing in the Venice canal, and the fog swallowing everything in sight, it remains one of the greatest horror endings to one of the decade’s finest titles.
Don’t Look Now is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.