Familial disaster and the deep psychological wounds of grief have been a bedrock of the horror genre for centuries. Often credited as the birth of Gothic horror, Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto explores the madness that follows the gruesome death of a son on his wedding day. Speaking to our primal fears, it also raises the spectre that, in willing the return of our loved ones at all costs, something terrible could cross the veil between life and death in their stead.
It’s an idea exhumed to chilling effect in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, first brought to the screen by Mary Lambert in 1989. Australian actors Essie Davis and Toni Collette have traced such fractures in The Babadook and Hereditary respectively. But Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 classic Don’t Look Now is perhaps the most chilling. Adapted from the short story of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier, whose Gothic tendencies also haunt Rebecca, The Guardian named it the third-best horror film of all time in 2010, just behind Rosemary’s Baby and Psycho.
Coming hot on the heels of the British director’s Australian-set classic Walkabout (1971), and in the same vintage year for horror as The Exorcist and The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as well-to-do couple Laura and John Baxter. Their enviable life is torn asunder by the accidental drowning death of their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams).
Featuring one of cinema’s most memorable opening sequences, it unfurls in a dreary grey half-light. Pino Donaggio’s unsettling score endows a rain-lashed garden pond with an unusual air of menace in the very first shot, and the inexplicably creepy doll Christine carries, a wartime figure wearing a gas mask, exacerbates the spookiness. Even the spiralling red and white design of the small ball she fatefully falls into the water while attempting to fetch is somehow unnerving. But it’s the blood-red mac Christine wears that really sears itself into your mind, long before Schindler’s List worked a similar visual cue.
Roeg was a cinematographer before stepping into directorial duties, including on François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, and he has an eye for the uncanny. Masterfully edited in conjunction with Australian Graeme Clifford, this cracking opener only gets odder. Intercut with a deceptively domestic scene between Laura and John indoors, he’s an art restoration expert looking at a polaroid of a church’s stained glass window. In one pew sits a small figure with its back to us, wearing a red hooded jacket like Christine’s. Suddenly John flinches, tipping over a glass of water onto the picture and causing the red to swirl.
This minor accident comes to feel like a witch’s curse invoked, overlaid as it is with the moment of Christine’s drowning. Deploying a startling moment’s silence leaves the audience unsure if John’s mad dash to the pond is because he hears his son Johnny (Nicholas Salter) screaming, or if he’s driven by a premonition. Johnny cycling over and breaking a mirror, then cutting his hand on the glass, adds extra “uh oh” imagery to the scene.
A great deal of Don’t Look Now’s power lies in forcing us to second-guess what we have just witnessed. How we read the symbolism of the photograph shifts dramatically in the film’s equally unforgettable finale. Moving to Venice, rather than the sun-kissed palazzos we’re accustomed to seeing, the majority of the film plays out in the off-season. Shuttered hotels and mist-enshrouded canals further place us on the backfoot.
The couple’s retreat is ostensibly so John can repair a dilapidated church (top marks for the “Venice in peril” sign outside), but it’s mostly an attempt to heal together, away from the scene of the disaster. Alas, poor Johnny’s left back home in the care of others, but this reads like necessity. Rather than presenting us with the gnashing and wailing of grief unfettered, this time and scenery shift deals in the impossible normality that follows tragedy. Christie and Sutherland do remarkable work in quietly tender moments, and in their famously erotic sex scene (again, cleverly intercut with the couple dressing for dinner).
On the idea of witchcraft, there’s a touch of Shakespeare’s Wyrd Sisters in two elderly women Christine crosses paths with at breakfast in their hotel one morning. Clelia Matania plays the officious Wendy, who helps guide her blind sibling Heather, a brilliant turn by Hilary Mason as a woman gifted (or cursed) with second sight. Heather’s disturbingly guttural visions lead Laura to believe that they can see and hear Christine, and she finds succour in this idea. Closely aligning with their ‘coven’, the mystical number three is formed.
While John is initially exasperated, particularly by Heather’s warning that ‘Christine’ predicts further tragedy unless the couple leaves Venice, the seed of doubt is sown in his mind. John’s typically blokey stoicism is dismantled by a creeping dread for Laura’s safety on learning there’s a serial killer on the loose. And then there’s the small matter of the red hooded jacket-wearing figure he keeps spying. Does John share Heather’s power?
Roeg revels in the power of suggestion, layering in symbolism in John’s half-glimpsed frights from not quite right locals. The film’s wild final reveal matters less than the helter-skelter descent it takes to get there. Viscerally discombobulating, Don’t Look Now constantly wrong-foots guesswork. Spiralling into an obsessive hunt for the reincarnation of his drowned daughter, the shock of red is ever-present, found in mosaic tiles and the paint spatters on a hessian sack-hooded gargoyle. As with Pet Sematary, it pays to be careful what you wish for, and perhaps not to stare too intently into the void.
The Iconic 70s collection airs on SBS World Movies at 9.30pm for five nights from Monday to Friday 13–16 September, starting with Don’t Look Now. Also airing will be Tess (1979), Fist of Fury (1972), Drunken Master (1978) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1979).
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