Don’t Look Now – aka A Venezia… un dicembre rosso shocking – is a 1973 British/Italian horror film directed by Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth). It was adapted from Not After Midnight, the short story by Daphne du Maurier. The movie stars Julie Christie (Demon Seed) and Donald Sutherland (Frankenstein, 2004).
While Don’t Look Now observes many conventions of the thriller genre, its primary focus is on the psychology of grief, and the effect the death of a child can have on a relationship. Its emotionally convincing depiction of grief is often singled out as a trait not usually present in films featuring supernatural plot elements.
A married couple (Christie and Sutherland) travel to Venice following the recent accidental death of their daughter, when the husband accepts a commission to restore a church. They encounter two sinister sisters, one of whom claims to be clairvoyant and informs them that their daughter is trying to contact them and warn them of that they are in danger. At first, the husband dismisses the sisters claims, but starts to experience mysterious sightings himself…
As well as the unusual handling of its subject matter, Don’t Look Now is renowned for its atypical but innovative editing style, and its use of recurring motifs and themes. The film often employs flashbacks and flashforwards in keeping with the depiction of precognition, but some scenes are intercut or merged to alter the viewer’s perception of what is really happening. It also adopts an impressionist approach to its imagery, often presaging events with familiar objects, patterns and colours using associative editing techniques.
Originally causing controversy on its initial release due to an explicit and—for the time—very overt sex scene between Christie and Sutherland, the film’s reputation has grown considerably in the years since, and it is now acknowledged as a modern classic and an influential work in horror and British film.
On February 10, 2015, The Criterion Collection released the film on Blu-ray and two-disc DVD. The discs feature 4K digital restorations approved by director Nicolas Roeg, presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
• New conversation between the film’s editor, Graeme Clifford, and film writer Bobbie O’Steen
• “Don’t Look Now, Looking Back,” a short 2002 documentary featuring Roeg, Clifford and cinematographer Anthony Richmond
• “Death in Venice,” a 2006 interview with Donaggio
• “Something Interesting,” a new documentary on the writing and making of the film, featuring interviews with Richmond, Christie, Sutherland and co-screenwriter Allan Scott
• “Nicolas Roeg: The Enigma of Film,” a new documentary on Roeg’s style, featuring interviews with filmmakers Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh
• Q&A with Roeg at London’s Ciné Lumière from 2003
• Essay by film critic David Thompson
“For Daphne du Maurier, “Venetian” was her private word for lesbian, and she herself had a lifelong struggle to come to terms with her own homosexuality, never far from the surface. Furthermore, “going to Venice” was her private code for having a lesbian sexual adventure. Crucially, Du Maurier herself, long before this story was written, went to Venice to get over the death of someone dear to her – her lover Gertrude Lawrence – and it may have been on this visit (although she made a number of literal visits to Venice) that she herself mistook a dwarf for a child. Denial and fear and excitement are transformed, in this story, into a tale of supernatural longing and horror.” The Guardian
Don’t Look Now is a creepy movie. It’s probably best known for two things: the lengthy sex scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland (which was apparently quite controversial back in 1973 but which seems rather tame when viewed today) and the film’s shock ending. It’s one of the best and most disturbing endings in the history of horror and I’m not going to spoil it in this review. The first time I saw the movie, the ending caught me totally off guard and gave me nightmares. Admittedly, it’s not hard to give me nightmares but what’s remarkable is that, upon subsequent viewings, the ending is still just as frightening and disturbing. In fact, knowing what’s going to happen makes the film even more chilling.
It’s a simple story but it’s told in a very complex fashion. Director Nicolas Roeg is best known for his fragmented narrative style. Roeg often mashes together scenes from the past, present, and future and leaves it up to the viewer to put it all together. (For instance, in Don’t Look Now, scenes of John and Laura making love are intercut with scenes of them getting dressed afterward.) Roeg’s style that can often come across as being pretentious but, in Don’t Look Now, it works perfectly. The audience is kept off-balance and is always aware that that’s more than one possible interpretation for everything that is seen. Is Laura in the UK or is she on a boat in Venice? Is Heather seeing Christine or is she just trying to con a grieving mother? Is John chasing the figure in the red coat or is she actually the one pursuing him? Is John chasing the figure because he believes that she’s his daughter or because he wants to prove, once and for all, that Christine is gone and never coming back? Roeg keeps you guessing.
Death seems to permeate every frame of Don’t Look Now, whether it’s Heather’s cheery descriptions of the afterlife or the sight of a bloated corpse being pulled out of the canal. Even when John is working in the church, he still nearly slips off a scaffolding. While John restores ancient buildings to the vibrant glories of the past, the present seems to grow more and more ominous and menacing. John and Laura may have traveled to Venice to escape their grief but their grief follows them. How they deal with that grief — both as a couple and as individuals — is what determines their fate. For a film that is full of mysteries, none is as enigmatic as Julie Christie’s smile when she’s on the boat.
I’m probably making Don’t Look Now sound like an incredibly grim film and, to a certain extent, it is. After all, early 70s cinema is not known for its happy endings. And yet, as dark and disturbing as this film may be, it’s impossible to look away from. Roeg does a fantastic job capturing both the beauty and the decay of Venice while Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are so sympathetic as John and Laura that you find yourself rewatching and hoping that somehow, they don’t end up making the same mistakes that they made the last time that you watched.
Don’t Look Now is an essential horror film and one that’s as timeless as the sight of a crab running across someone’s front porch.
“The film is impeccably made and has numerous motifs running through it, from the choice to have the films main setting in Venice, a city famous for its canals meaning that there is always water to remind the Baxter’s of their child’s drowning. The use of colour is also fantastically explored with most of the film being very flat earth tones and then pops alive with Christine and the mysterious child-like figure running around in a striking red coat…” To Watch Pile
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“Roeg’s mosaic approach to screen time (a love-making session is intercut with the couple prosaically getting dressed afterwards) makes even the matter-of-fact scenes magical and threatening.” The Aurum Encyclopedia of Film: Horror
” … an engrossing psychological horror film … Ambiguous and enigmatic, but its psychic themes are fascinating.” John Stanley, Creature Features
“Nicolas Roeg’s non-linear approach turns what might have been a dull and conventional mystery into a harrowing horror that defies classification. In both plot and construction, the film is a constant surprise. Nothing follows expected patterns.” Mike Mayo, Videohound’s Horror Show
“Roeg was one of the supreme cinematic stylists of the 70s. In this film, the dominant motifs are patterns and redness. Watch for gates, bars, bricks, tiles, fences, or reflected spots of light. Watch for flashes of red in coats, hats, scarves, boots, candles, flowers, and occasionally blood. You might watch for red herrings as well.”David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers
” …isn’t just a masterpiece of terror, it’s also a work of bottomless empathy and slender, spectral beauty.” Tom Huddleston, Time Out
Don’t Look Now – BFI Film Classics by Mark Sanderson, 2012 (2nd edition), Palgrave MacMillan, UK
Cast and characters:
- Julie Christie … Laura Baxter
- Donald Sutherland … John Baxter
- Hilary Mason … Heather
- Clelia Matania … Wendy
- Massimo Serato … Bishop Barbarrigo
- Renato Scarpa … Inspector Longhi
- Giorgio Trestini … Workman
- Leopoldo Trieste … Hotel Manager
- David Tree … Anthony Babbage
- Mandy Babbage
- Nicholas Salter … Johnny Baxter
- Sharon Williams … Christine Baxter
- Bruno Cattaneo … Detective Sabbione
- Adelina Poerio … Dwarf