(Before I begin I should point out that spoilers are contained in the text that follows.)
One cliché that is used in plenty of mainstream horror films today – even the scary and otherwise inventive ones – is the ghostly child figure. If the ghostly child figure does appear in a horror film, you can bet your bottom dollar that at some point he/she/it will be found in a room, facing a wall, with its back to camera. It will turn slowly to face the audience to reveal a deformity or some other unusual facet of their appearance which is intended to shock or unsettle the viewer.
In Nicolas Roeg’s thriller / gothic horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now, we are led to believe that the ghostly child figure is an apparition of Christine (Sharon Williams), the deceased daughter of Laura and John Baxter (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland). In an uncomfortable opening sequence we see the Baxters at home in England where, following a family lunch, John is viewing slides of a church in Venice he will be restoring. In one of the slides a small figure sits in a pew in a red coat, with back to the camera. Meanwhile, we are also shown their daughter Christine playing near a pond outside while wearing a red coat. She falls in and drowns. John senses something is wrong, and rushes out to try and save his daughter, but he is too late. He knocks over a drink on the way out, and the liquid alters the slide, causing a strange blood-like red mark to appear across it.
Some time after the accident, John has accepted a commission from a bishop (Massimo Serato) to restore the church in Venice, and the Baxters have relocated to the city while the work is carried out, with the hope that the fresh surroundings will also help them in dealing with their grief. At lunch one day they meet two elderly sisters named Heather and Wendy (Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania); Heather, who is blind, is a clairvoyant, and she tells Laura without prompting that she is able to ‘see’ the couple’s dead daughter sitting beside them, happily.
The couple stay in Venice while the work is ongoing, and repeatedly bump into the two sisters. Laura meets with Heather and Wendy for a séance where the aim is to contact Christine, but instead Heather ends up hysterically warning Laura that John is in danger and they should leave Venice immediately. Meanwhile John catches sight at night of a small child mysteriously wearing a red coat, who he believes to be his deceased daughter.
After John survives a near-death experience while working on mosaic tiling in the church, the couple receive word that their son (Nicholas Salter) is in hospital after a fall at boarding school in England. Laura agrees to fly home to check he is OK, but later the same day John spots her with the two sisters on a barge travelling through the city’s canals. Convinced his wife has been kidnapped, he reports the two sisters to the Venice police, who begin their search while also tailing John himself. Oddly, though, when John telephones the boarding school he is able to speak to Laura, despite having seen her in Venice.
A confused John tells the police he has located his wife, and apologises to Heather, who has been found and taken in to a police station for questioning. John takes Heather back to her hotel, where she slips into a trance. After leaving the hotel John sees the childlike figure in the red coat again, and chases after it, despite Heather’s warnings he is in grave danger. Cornering the red-coated figure in a deserted palazzo, it is revealed to be an adult serial killer dwarf (Adelina Poerio), who slashes his neck with a knife. As soon as I saw this, I thought of David Lynch. It’s not actually the fact that the character is a dwarf, though Lynch obviously has a certain fascination with dwarfism. It’s more the unsettling nature of this final scene, the weirdness of it, the sudden realisation that everything is off-kilter, while the mind quickly works back through what has passed before (aided by a speedy series of flashbacks). While both Lynch and Roeg can be described as more than adept at creating a heightened sense of unease, the latter has clearly influenced the former.
As John dies we realise that he has not been seeing Christine’s ghost running around Venice (and neither have we), but in fact John has been experiencing premonitions of his own death at the hands of the dwarf (hence seeing Laura and the two sisters on the barge: this is John’s vision of his own funeral cortege). As revealed by Heather, John has psychic powers of his own that he is afraid to explore, and he has thus been unable to understand the significance of his visions. (The bishop of the church John is restoring also wakes with a start when terrible events occur in the film, displaying the same kind of psychic awareness John had at the very beginning of the film when his daughter fell into the pond.)
Roeg’s film is extremely clever, and the director uses fragmented editing techniques throughout, which are used to play around with the notion of time, making the action seem disjointed. In the opening scene it is actually used to reveal John’s psychic abilities, but at that point the viewer does not have all of the required information to fully understand this. Later on, when we become party to John’s visions, the editing helps to confuse the viewer and makes us identify with John’s puzzled state. We cannot understand why he has seen his wife in Venice when she is supposed to be in England, and neither can he.
The fluid editing, employed by Roeg on his earlier films Performance and Walkabout, is most famously used in a fairly graphic sex scene between Christie and Sutherland (‘fairly graphic’ by today’s standards – the film has been reclassified as a 15 – but a very risky one for the early 70s), where we see shots of John and Laura getting dressed after the event, interwoven with footage of them having sex (replicated by Steven Soderbergh in Out Of Sight). Roeg establishes a jittery, non-linear feel, but rather than editing the film this way for purely aesthetic reasons, it also has an important function, and is used to explain and illuminate the story.
The sex scene is, perhaps, the only moment in the film in which the Baxters are truly together. Don’t Look Now subtly examines the idea of a couple that are drifting apart from each other, in this case following a terrible tragedy. While the two are together in the sense they are living in the same city, they spend much of the film away from each other or just out of reach; in the restaurant mentioned above Laura mainly stays in the toilets talking to the sisters, leaving John to look at his slides. When the séance takes place the skeptical John stays away at first, and when curiosity takes hold and he does attempt to join in, he is mistaken for a peeping tom and chased out of the sisters’ hotel. When John and Laura walk the dimly lit alleys of Venice at night they tend to split up from each other; one is often seen crossing a bridge or walking down an alleyway just after the other, as if they were nothing more than an echo of their partner. Laura flies to the UK, leaving John alone in Venice, and so on.
When the couple are together they seem to repeatedly get lost in the labyrinthine streets, and are often seen re-tracing their steps, as if they are going round in circles. Additionally, when Italian is spoken by characters it is not translated, which adds to the sense of confusion John in particular is experiencing in the city.
Generally the men in Don’t Look Now seem to find it hard to communicate with those around them; it is telling that in the scene where the headmaster of the boarding school phones the Baxters to inform them that their son is unwell, he muddles his words, and the phone is taken from him by his wife. Interactions between men are generally awkward (for example between John and the Venice police), whereas the women seem much more capable with conversing – even with the dead.
The choice of Venice as a location adheres to the original story, by Daphne du Maurier, but Roeg and screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant switched around one important fact to suit their needs and create a much darker story. In du Maurier’s tale Christine dies from meningitis, rather than drowning. Linking the cause of death to the main location of the film, however, is a master stroke which enables Roeg to use the abundance of water as a constant reminder of the girl’s death. Who would go to Venice, of all places, to recover from a fatal drowning? The other constant reminder of the tragedy, the colour red, is used sparingly but very effectively, and while the Baxters thankfully do not flinch every time they see it, every time we see the colour it serves to keep Christine’s death at the forefront of our minds. Roeg plays with his viewers in a very Hitchcockian way.
Other motifs are used throughout the film. People falling is a concept that is repeated occasionally; obviously there is the fall into the pond, but also Laura faints and falls in the restaurant. John nearly falls from a height when inspecting a mosaic in the church. Their son is injured in a fall at boarding school, and the bishop tells John that his father died after a big fall. We repeatedly see glass being broken too.
Most importantly, items or people are used in the film as duplications or even doppelgangers. Photographs and photographic slides appear regularly, for example, as do drawings and other reproductions. These items supposedly describe ‘facts’, but in actuality cannot be fully trusted to accurately describe anything. In that sense the drawings and photographs are devices that echo John’s own mis-placed trust in the very ‘truth’ of what he sees.
Both Christie and Sutherland are believable as the couple dealing with tragedy. The rest of the cast perform adequately, and despite some hysterical overacting at times the two sisters are a chilling, disconcerting presence; every time they appear in and around Venice the hairs on the back of your neck will stand to attention.
Don’t Look Now is a multi-faceted work, a superior horror film that is as chilling as it is clever. Released as part of a double bill (The Wicker Man was the ‘B’ movie) it is viewed today as a classic of the genre, and rightly so. The image of the young girl in the red mac, itself suggestive of vulnerability and innocence thanks to Little Red Riding Hood, has been used by many, many directors, and equivalent symbolism is used in Flatliners, In Bruges and Schindler’s List, to name a few. It’s an unsettling image here, leading to a shocking and gruesome climax.
Directed by: Nicolas Roeg
Written by: Daphne du Maurier (story), Allan Scott, Chris Bryant (screenplay)
Starring: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland
Running Time: 110 Minutes