FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Oct 14, 2006

DON'T LOOK NOW

Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) is not simply one of my favorite horror films: it's one of my favorite films, period. Anyone who's yet to see it should do themselves a favor and hunt down a copy; anyone who's yet to see it should stop reading this now lest I give anything away. Don't read now! Ha ha, that's ever so funny.

If you have seen this landmark film then you already know the story, but it goes something like this. John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) lose their young daughter Christine when she drowns in a pond on their property. Some time later, the couple heads to Venice where John has been hired to assist in the restoration of a cathedral. Laura meets a pair of sisters, one of whom is a blind psychic. The psychic tells Laura that Christine is very happy in the afterlife, but her husband John's life is in danger while the couple stays in Venice and they should leave at once. John poo-poos the prediction, but it's a fact that everyone's life is in danger in Venice: there's a serial killer stalking the streets.

Don't Look Now is so much more than a simplistic plot summary can ever make it seem to be. The film absolutely succeeds as a horror film, for so many reasons. Superficially, it works as any horror movie should. One character quips that Venice is like a "dinner party where all the guests have died", and that couldn't be a more apt description- the city is sinister...it's a tomb. As more bodies are found on the streets and in the waterways we're reminded that there's a maniac on the loose, and yet the serial killings are but a backdrop to the plot at large. Every so often Roeg provides us with a glimpse, with a simple shot to remind us that there's danger afoot. The film also touches on a number of horror movie staples, namely ESP and ghosts. Could the diminutive red slicker-clad figure John spies scuttling around a corner really be the ghost of his dead daughter?

This movie is horrifying on a much deeper level, however, one that affects human beings on a base level. As the events of the film are played out, right down to that final revelation- you know the one- we come to realise that the hand of fate controls everyone's destiny. No matter how much you try to steer events, no matter how much you think you have figured out in your life, you simply don't. There is a beginning, there is a conclusion, and there's the path you walk in between the two. Don't Look Now reminds us, however, that the seeming randomness of life leads everyone to one inexorable fate: we all meet the grim reaper. As John Baxter's life is played out in flashbacks during his final moments, we see that every moment, every step, every decision he made led to this one unavoidable moment: death. The "randomness" of a serial killer in a red slicker isn't random at all- it's fate. It makes sense, and it doesn't make sense, all at the same time. Don't Look Now provides a far more deeply profound sort of terror than any Jason Voorhees movie ever could; you will someday meet your fate and it could be like something straight from your worst nightmares. No one knows until they arrive, but you can be sure you're on your way.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are simply amazing in this film. Both are such extraordinary actors that they can each convey more with a single look, with a mere facial expression, than most any other actor I've seen. And you know, I love Donald Sutherland- particularly 1970s afro Donald Sutherland. I've said time and again that horror films that succeed are the ones that make us care about the characters, and that's exactly what happens here. We care about John and Laura Baxter because they're real human beings. It's as simple as that. Because we've come to love them, when all the puzzle pieces fall into place during the last 15 minutes of the film, we're devastated. Good people are supposed to be rewarded, aren't they? As ludicrous as it may seem, we want John to be chasing his daughter through Venice, somehow brought back to life. Then, in an instant, Roeg reminds us yet again: even good people meet the reaper. That's fate, baby.

4 comments:

Amanda By Night said...

Awesome review, Stacie. I saw this movie only once, in the theater shortly after someone revealed the ending to me, so what should have been a sucker-punch was really just a flick. That absoulutely disappointed me, but I still loved the movie. From what I remember, the love scene was extraordinary, fairly graphic and completely realistic. It's scenes like this that make me yearn for films to capture that kind of humanity again.

Have you seen The Comfort of Strangers? Basically a remake of Don't Look Now, except I saw that one first. I remember (I was in my early 20s) that is one of the most disturbing films I'd seen... I even had gotten the poster from the video store I worked at and couldn't bear to hang it up because it just reminded me so much of how I felt watching it. In retrospect, it's probably not so great, but at a time when I was just discovering horror, it was a mindblower. Maybe you should check it out for comparison?

Anyway, I bring that up because Don't Look Now is the kind of film people should discover when they first get into horror (as an adult anyway) because it really shows that films don't have to be wall to wall gore to make you break out in a sweat.

Amanda By Night

Bill Walsh said...

Whoa, whoa, whoa, Stacie. You reviewed Don't Look Now and didn't mention probably the most famous thing about it?

Stacie Ponder said...

Ha! Nice link, Bill.

Yeah, I neglected to mention the sex scene because I thought that if I started writing about that, then I'd never stop writing about this movie. You could write a hearty thesis on this movie, undoubtedly.

The sex scene is, in a word, amazing. Not for it's explicitness, but because of the mundane events intercut with it. We see the couple not just fucking, but being intimate in their lives, in the simple act of getting dressed for a night out. The back-and-forth adds such a dimension to the scene and to the characters, more than any "hot" scene from something like Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct ever could. Like Amanda said, it adds a touch of humanity to the film, and it makes every single thing that comes after that much more powerful.

It's beautiful and crass, just like real life. It all begins with a single touch, which is far more familiar than the "sweep the dishes off the tabletop" method so often employed in films.

The music that accompanies the scene, however, is dated and funny.

Amanda, I've never seen The Comfort of Strangers. I'm fixin' ta add it to the list!

Wolfgang said...

Don't Look Now is my favourite film, it is so sad and mysterious.

I think its sex scene works because being intercut with John and Laura dressing makes it an immensely private moment, and not something you usually see in films. It creates intimacy. It is interesting to note that this scene is not as innovative as it may seem - there is one very similar in "Who Saw Her Die" with George Lazenby. All "Don't Look Now" fans should check it out; it was made one year earlier and stars Lazenby as a man who is intent on tracking down his daughter's murderer in Venice. It's not in Don't Look Now's league, but its use of unfamiliar Venetian locations is similar and there is also an intercut sex scene between Lazenby and his wife as they are grieving for their daughter. I've often wondered if it was an influence on Don't Look Now, and while not a great film it is an interesting precursor.