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Oct 13, 2014

October 2014 Horror Movie a Day - Day 12: DON'T LOOK NOW (1973)


One thing I have tried to do with this blog and on my Confessions of a Movie Addict Tumblr page is cover as wide of a variety of films as possible, and not just focus on one genre or style. There are so many different facets to motion pictures, and one of the great aspects of being a lover of the cinema - or even just a casual movie watcher - is exploring and discovering all of them.

I have also taken that approach with this Horror Movie a Day series (and plan to carry it over into next month's Noirvember series) by not just seeking out slasher, cult, zombie or haunted house stories as well as mixing things up. With Don't Look Now I discovered a picture that is so completely different from any other horror movie I have ever seen that it was invigorating.

Some people may have difficulty recognizing this as horror as it is does not neatly fit into the genre.  It plays like a drama as there aren't obvious 'scares' nor is there any real edge-of-your-seat tension. But make no mistake, this is a horror picture. It is a picture where the tension is driven by foreboding and suffocating grief that leads up to an inevitable yet startling moment of violence.

Thank goodness they let us keep our clothes on for some of this picture.
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are an attractive, upper-class, intellectual couple. While working on what appears to be a leisurely Sunday afternoon (the day is never stated, but it has that vibe), Sutherland - who restores old churches - is shocked when a slide he is looking at suddenly is soaked in what appears to be blood. Compelled to run outside, he comes across his panicky son and discovers that his young daughter wearing a bright red rain coat (the only source of real color in this movie...more on that in a bit) has drowned in a nearby pond. Sutherland tries to resuscitate her, but it is too late. An oblivious Julie Christie finally comes on the scene and upon seeing her grieving husband and dead daughter, screams out in agony.

Sutherland doesn't take any crap from religious statues!
As I have mentioned in past posts, the death of a loved one is a common motif in horror pictures (see my earlier entries for The Believers and The Woman in Black). It allows for the characters to accept the supernatural forces they are about to collide with, and their grief is the catalyst that opens that door in the first place. These deaths hang over the protagonists like a storm cloud, and while they completely buy into the experiences they are having no matter how outlandish, it takes longer for the others around them to clue in since they are not wallowing in grief. Death has a habit of opening horror picture protagonist's eyes to the supernatural.

Listen Spielberg, we did the girl in a red coat thing first!
After the death Sutherland and Christie relocate to Venice, Italy where Sutherland has been commissioned to restore an ancient church. It is no coincidence that this couple moves to a city surrounded by and in a sense is immersed in water. It is a constant reminder of what they lost when their daughter drowned, as they themselves are drowning in their own grief even though it may not be all that apparent by looking at them.   While dining, they are stared at by a pair of elderly ladies who make it a point to bump into Christie on their way to the restroom. One of the ladies is blind with intimidating, glazed over eyes and Christie offers to help them - which was their intention all along. The blind woman tells Christie that she saw their departed daughter, in the red rain coat, sitting between them at the table because she is a clairvoyant. Returning to the table, Christie faints and brings the table down with her in a cacophony of crashing plates and shattering wine glasses.

You should always listen to a woman with creepy eyes.
While recovering at the hospital, Christie tells Sutherland of her encounter with the ladies and he is beyond skeptical. However, her mood has lightened and she appears to be almost completely full of joy again so he doesn't really care. The couple is so energized they engage in what has to be one of the longest sex scenes I have ever seen in a movie. It is obvious that neither Sutherland nor Christie employed body doubles and it is as sensual and beautiful as it is uncomfortable. It is as if the sex has momentarily torn down their emotional barriers which their clothes stand in for. Sutherland even goes back to his work completely nude, he's completely vulnerable. If you ever wanted to see Donald Sutherland naked, this is the movie for you.

Is there a chill in here? (Note the cross off to the left)
Everywhere they go, Sutherland keeps seeing the elderly women and tries to hide from them. He also keeps seeing fleeting glances of someone running away in a red raincoat - exactly like the one his daughter was wearing - which brings on memory flashes of the tragic incident. Christie decides to find the women, against Sutherland's wishes, in order to take part in a seance that they offered . The clairvoyant goes into hysterics claiming that a 'tragedy' is awaiting them, and that they need get out of Venice as soon as possible. Sutherland laughs it off, but then they receive a phone call from a boarding school in England telling them their son has been in an accident. Christie flies off to England immediately, but shortly after Sutherland thinks he sees her on a boat as part of a funeral procession with the two elderly ladies. While at work, Sutherland nearly falls and nearly meets with a fatal demise. There is a serial killer on the loose in Venice, and Sutherland gets so worried about seeing his wife - who should be out of town - and not finding her anywhere. He goes to the police who get suspicious of him and put a tail on him. He gets even more worried when he sees the body of a murdered woman being dragged out of the water, which again brings back memories of his dead daughter.

If we just stare straight ahead, maybe he won't see us.
The elderly women are the key to the whole mystery and Sutherland tries to find them. Here is the point where I will stop going into detail and just leave it at there are mysterious forces at work on Sutherland which affect his judgment and the final outcome which is violent and shocking.

If we keep this sex scene going long enough, we can really make the audience uncomfortable.
I think of Don't Look Now as an 'emotional' horror picture. Grief is everywhere in this picture - in the characters, in the setting, in the clothing. The movie is almost entirely devoid of color except for splashes of bright red - which is introduced with the deceased girl's raincoat. There is a sequence in a police precinct where Sutherland, dressed in muted browns and earth tones, sits on an intimidating brown sofa, that is on the opposite end of a large room from the officer he is talking too. It's a depressing room and Sutherland is virtually swallowed up by it. This is a man who is so wrapped up in his emotions that he keeps his distance from anyone - except during the aforementioned epic sex scene with his wife where he is literally and metaphorically naked. The city of Venice looks old and rundown and features none of the usual romantic trappings that are highlighted in other films (nor the  infamous double-take pigeon from the James Bond picture, Moonraker). It is a drab, dreary and depressing place, and one wonders if Sutherland and Christie have made it so by bringing their overwhelming grief with them.

Sutherland keeps seeing red!
Whenever bright red appears, it is startling. From the splash of red that appears on Sutherland's slide, to the red raincoat on his daughter as she's drowning (this is exactly 20 years before Steven Spielberg famously made use of a little girl in a red coat in his 1993 film Schindler's List) to the appearances of the figure in red running through the back alleys of Venice, it is a foreboding warning of the danger that is to come. The only hint of color in Sutherland's wardrobe is a red scarf, as if the red from his daughter's raincoat is constantly trying to strangle him. This picture is packed full with other motifs as well including breaking glass (Sutherland drops a glass of water and his son runs over and breaks glass with his bicycle during the drowning, Christie falls on a a table breaking wine glasses) and falling (the girl falls in the water, Christie falls over fainting, Sutherland almost falls to his death, a priest relays a story about his father dying from a fall) and of course water. The religious symbolism connected with Sutherland's profession can't be coincidental either. He rebuilds churches while the life of this couple and their souls are also in desperate need of rebuilding.

I'd turn around, but that would trigger a spoiler alert.
One technique that really makes this picture exciting is the way director Nicolas Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford employ cross-cutting. The opening sequence alone would make a great discussion piece for a cinema Mise-en-scène class as well as editing and storytelling technique. The characters (the parents and the kids) are not in the same environment, but the way it is cut amplifies the connection between the tragic event outdoors and how the lives of these two relaxed adults indoors is about to be shattered (here is where that glass breaking while the girl dies comes into play). Creative cutting is also employed during the extended sex scene and later used to enhance tragic memory flashes, as well as to disorient the viewer in many places to keep us guessing as to exactly where this picture is taking us.

I really need to have a talk with my agent, I die way too soon.
We never see the parents with their children ever except when the girl has died and Sutherland drags her out of the pond. Sutherland's memories of her are only visions of the moment she died. Later on their son is only seen in bed following his accident in England, and outside of that accident is never mentioned by his parents at all. These are characters who have surrounded themselves with their grief so much that they have even cut themselves off from everything including their remaining, living child. It makes us question whether this was a happy, well-adjusted family to begin with.

Ahhh, Venice!
This is a picture that demands the viewer's attention, as well as further examination as I plan to revisit this again and soon. It will definitely top one of my 'Film Discoveries of 2014' blog posts, a great annual tradition started by the Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog. The end result for me was a cinematic wonder that takes the horror genre in a new and exciting direction, one I never thought possible.