This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s movie is British art-house horror flick (and, according to some lists, one of the best British films of all time) Don’t Look Now (1973), directed by Nicholas Roeg (Performance, The Man Who Fell to Earth) and based on a story by Daphne du Maurier. It was recommended by friend and former Book City co-worker Carter West, who you might see working the makeshift Ben McNally bookstore at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto this and next week.
A big thanks to Queen Video, who provided the DVD of Don’t Look Now and have a dazzling horror DVD selection in general.
I have to confess that I was well aware of the twist ending to Don’t Look Now, as it’s one of those things that usually appears on those ‘most shocking horror movie moments’ or ‘most surprising twist endings’ lists one finds on the internet, which is too bad, as that twist is by far the best part of a film that tries a little too hard (for my tastes) to be a capital-’F’ film.
Don’t Look Now begins in the idyllic English countryside: married couple John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) Baxter work inside their country home while their son and daughter play outside in the fall weather. John, a dead ringer for Alex Trebek’s taller brother, looks through photographic slides of a church while Laura researches the answer to a question her precocious daughter asked: ‘If the world’s round, why is a frozen pond flat?’ John notices a strange red-coated figure in one of the slides. He goes to prepare himself a drink and accidentally spills water on that slide. At the very same time, their son Johnny bikes over a pane of glass, and their daughter, Christine, plunges into a backyard pond. As the water makes the slide colours run and produces a red crescent shape, John senses danger and runs outside. Johnny is already running toward him. John Baxter trudges directly into the pond and retrieves his daughter. He howls in agony, clutching Christine to his chest, then conducts the weirdest method of CPR I’ve ever seen, to no avail. Christine has died.
The film jumps forward: John and Laura Baxter are temporarily living in Venice as John oversees restoration of a cathedral (which explains all those slides of churches). They meet for lunch in a restaurant, but John notices two older women giving them the stink-eye. He opens the window to blow dust in their eyes (which is both weird and overly passive-aggressive), and the women leave for the washroom. Laura follows and ends up assisting the one woman to remove the dirt from her eye. The women are sisters, one of whom is blind. (The one without dirt in her eye, as you might have guessed.) The blind sister, Heather, claims to be clairvoyant and – while talking with Laura in the washroom – tells Laura she needn’t worry: she’s seen her girl, Christine (whom she identifies by her shiny red Mackintosh), and she’s happy and laughing. Laura needs to be roused with smelling salts after Heather drops that bomb on her. (Whatever happened to smelling salts? They used to be a staple of movie plots.)
When Laura returns from the washroom, she promptly collapses onto the table. She awakens in the hospital and explains to John what the two sisters told her. John, while skeptical of the sisters (the word ‘mumbo-jumbo’ gets major play in this movie), can’t deny that his wife seems much happier and more herself after talking to the sisters, like her heavy grief has been lifted. They take a water taxi home and Laura asks to stop at a random church, where she lights prayer candles for Christine. Laura begins to take an increased interest in religion, even kissing the cathedral overseer (and sort of John’s boss) Bishop Barbarrigo’s ring. Then: sex break. Our couple showers, and John lounges around their hotel room in the nude, assuming if he stays naked long enough, sex will happen (I guess). He’s not wrong, and an interminable, fairly graphic sex scene follows, all set to music that sounds like an extended remix of the Young and the Restless theme. The scene is intercut with John and Laura getting dressed and ready for a night out, which they plan to do after making the beast with two backs.
They get lost on the way to the restaurant and John accidentally takes them down a dark alley where he encounters a couple rats and a strange sense of déjà vu. He and Laura get momentarily separated, a horrible sound cuts through the night air, and John sees a child in a red coat (just like Christine!) running over a bridge about half a block away. Eventually, they find their restaurant. The next day, while he works on the cathedral, John notices the two sisters again, and watches as his wife follows them. Laura, in a private meeting with Heather and Wendy, explains how Christine died and how – strangely – her husband just seemed to know it was happening. Wendy, the non-clairvoyant sister, lost a child early, too, so she sympathizes. The sisters will conduct a séance of sorts to try to reach Christine. I say ‘of sorts,’ because the séance largely involves the blind sister, Heather, caressing her own breasts and shouting ‘Yes!’ John, meanwhile, has tailed the sisters and his wife, and tries to spy on them, but is chased out of the apartment for being a Peeping Tom. (If John Baxter had only known what the séance entailed, he’d probably be more inclined to let his wife attend.) Heather tells Laura that John’s life is in danger if the two of them stay in Venice.
Later, in their hotel room, Laura delivers the bad news to John, who becomes suddenly very ill. Laura thinks their daughter is trying to warn them to leave Italy, and John reacts poorly, swearing at his wife and reminding her that Christine is, like, super-dead. At this point, you might wonder what ever happened to their other child, that son with the bicycle. Apparently, they put Johnny in a boarding school in England, as they’re awoken in the middle of the night by the school’s headmaster and mistress, who inform the couple that Johnny’s had a bad accident. He’s okay, but Laura wants to visit her son as soon as possible. John works with the hotel to get her on the next charter flight back to England.
John Baxter, however, stays in Venice and continues working on the cathedral restoration. The Bishop learns about the Baxter son’s accident and is a little amazed that John decided not to join his wife. John climbs scaffolding to work on the mosaic, which – in an eerie parallel – looks a lot like the red crescent that marred the slide in the film’s very beginning. The scaffolding, of course, collapses, and John just barely survives by grasping one of the dangling ropes. Shaken, John takes a water taxi back to the hotel with the Bishop and tells him about the warning and the sisters. That scaffolding accident must have been what they had foreseen. Across the canal, they witness a police boat drag up a woman’s drowned body, which is probably rougher for Mr. Baxter to see than most. Later on, while on another boat, he passes a water taxi coming the other direction and sees the two sisters and his wife, Laura, all clad in black. But she’s supposed to be in England with their son!
The hotel has closed for the season (is that a thing that happens in Venice?), but John is undeterred, barging into the manager’s private area and questioning him about whether Mrs. Baxter has come back to the hotel. (It’s actually pretty rude, and – in retrospect – John Baxter doesn’t show a lot of respect to people working in the hospitality industry in this movie.) The hotel manager hasn’t seen Laura since she left for England, so John takes the next logical step: he visits the police and has a sketch artist draw likenesses of the two sisters. He takes the sketches to a detective, Inspector Longhi, and asks for him to (a) find the two women and (b) find his wife, Laura. The Inspector, who may or may not spy the two sisters out his window while he converses with John, is confused. What is it John really fears? John then says, ‘The killer on the loose, the murderer … my wife – she’s not a well woman.’ At that point, two things immediately sprang to mind. (1) There’s a murderer on the loose?! I have been watching this movie really closely for the past hour and a half, and I had no idea there was a killer on the loose. I guess that’s what that drowned woman was all about. (2) Way to throw your wife under the bus, you creep, John Baxter. I also started to realize I might understand this movie a lot more if I knew some Italian.
John leaves, tailed by an Italian man. He sees a red raincoat on a clothesline, and decides to investigate the adjacent apartment complex. Inside the building, he asks after the two sisters in broken Italian, but no one seems to understand him. His tail, at that point, introduces himself as one of the ‘murder squad’ from the police. John goes home and phones his son’s boarding school to find Laura is there with Johnny. (I’m no architectural restoration expert, but I’d have done this before involving the police.) It’s a bit too late, though, as the police have already rounded up the blind sister, Heather, and put her in police custody. (Police have a lot of power in Venice, I suppose, as they can detain someone based on a rumour about a disappearance that never actually happened.) Feeling bad about things, John walks Heather back to her apartment that night, and is met at the door by Wendy (who is wearing a brooch in that omnipresent crescent shape). Heather almost immediately has a seizure, and John – sensing things getting a bit too real – makes a hasty retreat. Despite the fact that the seizing sister begs him not to leave for his own safety.
Laura arrives back in Venice and drops by the sisters’ apartment. They say she has to find John. Heather has had a vision of Christine again and John is in mortal danger. John, wandering through the dark Venetian alleys, sees that same kid in the red raincoat on the opposite shore of the canal. He follows the kid, even locking a gate behind him. What follows is lots of running up and down the canals – the kid in red, John, Laura – until John reaches the top of a bell tower and finds the kid in red, a la The Blair Witch Project (though decades earlier) facing a corner. John calls out for Christine, saying he’s a friend (which is strange, because – more relevantly – he’s her dad), but the kid in red turns around. He is not a kid, however, but she is a murderous dwarf – no joke – who runs up to John and cuts open his throat. John’s life flashes before his eyes as he drowns in his own blood on the floor
The last thing audiences see is a funeral procession of boats, with Laura and the two sisters dressed in mourning as before (when John saw – or thought he saw – them).
- More than a horror film, Don’t Look Now is a look at two parents’ grief at losing a daughter. And, as with many couples faced with the death of a child, they deal with it in very different ways: John throws himself into his work, Laura seeks guidance from the paranormal world. Just like in real life, their different coping mechanisms sometimes leads to estrangement and anger. (Many marriages don’t survive the death of a child.) However, I feel like a philistine when I say that I feel the much tighter, trashier Deathdream conveys the grief at losing a child way better than Don’t Look Now does. I wasn’t overwhelmed by this couple’s grief and was truly mystified as to why the parents took almost no interest in their son. I mean, work is work, but if you lose one child to an accidental drowning, you’d think you’d be a bit less cavalier about leaving your son to study in a different country. (Not to be armchair parent or anything.) If you can’t tell, I wasn’t too fond of Don’t Look Now: it was too self-conscious about being seen as an art film rather than a horror film, which explains its length (the longest horror movie I’ve watched this October) and the overly-involved sex scene. If you like rich people being a little bit sad, and really paranoid and unreasonable, you’ll enjoy Don’t Look Now.
- The water symbolism is a bit much, too. I get it: Christine died in water, so water is symbolic of death in Don’t Look Now. So, naturally, wallowing in their grief, they go to Venice, where there’s more water than land. Laura meets the sisters in the washroom, she collapses onto a table and knocks over all the water, it constantly rains. Water, water everywhere. The filmmakers might as well have just had Johnny’s accident be water-related – maybe a swirly gone too far – for the pièce de résistance.
- More intriguing than the movies rather banal – if I may be so bold – statements on grief is what it might say about predestination. After all, John Baxter, throughout the film, has premonitions of his own death. He sees his own funeral procession. He sees the red-coated figure blur into a slash of blood on the photographic slide. But it’s John’s personal actions that start the chain of events culminating in his death. He pursues the red-coated figure through the night, even though he’s been steadfastly skeptical of the sisters’ paranormal claims. In fact, it’s his actions (opening the restaurant window) that lead to Laura meeting the sisters in the first place! The movie is, quite literally, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- As I mentioned earlier, a good portion of the film’s dialogue is in Italian with no subtitles provided. I understand that this decision could be a conscious choice, to emphasize the confusion and loss the Baxters feel when trying to communicate in Venice. The ‘alien’ language enhances the unsettling feel and makes even the most innocuous exchanges seem sinister. That said, if I was a fluent Italian speaker, would that change my understanding of the movie entirely? Obviously some of the conversations – the hotel manager talking with his girlfriend, the tenants of the building who shoo John out – would feel completely different.
- In a complete aside, I feel it’s important to point out that, even at the age of thirty-seven or however old he was in Don’t Look Now, Donald Sutherland’s moans of agony sound precisely like a hundred year-old man drowning in his own soup.
Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: All of British cinema history may turn on me for this, but I really didn’t like Don’t Look Now. I’ll admit: the final reveal is spooky and very effective, but the lead up was too plodding, vague, and self-consciously artistic for me to feel scared or really enjoy it.
Best outfit: I really wanted John Baxter’s navy peacoat and colourful scarf to be my pick. It’s a great look. So good, it’s hard to understand why he seems so eager to take his clothes off. And I can’t pretend that their eleven year-old daughter, dressed in a bright red vinyl raincoat like some extra from Repo: A Genetic Opera, isn’t memorable. But that sweater Laura is wearing when she faints at the restaurant? That is one fine sweater: beautiful pattern and fits her like a second skin.
Best line: ‘I don’t know … I’m kind to animals and children.’ – Laura, when asked point-blank by Bishop Barbarrigo if she was Christian
Best kill: There’s only one kill we see – there’s no way I’m nominating Christine’s pond drowning for this – but it’s a pretty great one. That’s a real whack in the neck with the knife. An expert cutthroat would have used more of a horizontal slashing motion, but clubbing someone in the neck with a blade like you’re trying to open a piñata seems to do the trick here.
Unexpected cameo: I think we all know Donald ‘President Snow’ Sutherland and Julie ‘Lara’ Christie, but most interesting is the appearance of David Tree, who has a small role as Mr. Babbage, the headmaster of Johnny’s school. David Tree was once a leading British star on the rise until he lost an arm during service in World War II. He abandoned acting to become a farmer, and wasn’t seen in any film after the war until this one.
Unexpected lesson learned: Communication is the key to guiding your relation-ship through stormy seas. So, like, maybe call your wife to see she’s still in England instead of notifying the police, suggesting she’s a serial killer, and having two old ladies arrested.
Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Murder Squad, the police unit who tried (perhaps?) to help John Baxter out, is also a great name for a punk band or hip-hop crew.
Next up: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971).