Don't Look Now review – Roeg's scary movie can still make you jump

From its red stalker to its eerie strangers, this suspenseful classic set a template for horror – but its sexual intimacy adds a dramatic counterpoint few films can match

This week sees the restored rerelease of Nicolas Roeg’s eerie masterpiece Don’t Look Now from 1973, adapted by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant from the short story by Daphne du Maurier. It’s a film that apart from everything else popularised the classic scary-movie template: start off with a family tragedy, follow it with an apparently therapeutic retreat or escape, an illusory easing of the sadness burden, then pivot to a horror nightmare, in such a way that the grotesque denouement appears to flower as a mysteriously logical escalation of that initial heartbreak. It’s a form taken up by Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and, this week, by Ari Aster’s Midsommar.

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland play Laura and John, a grieving couple whose young daughter has died in a freak accident. John is an architectural historian and restorer whose work takes him and Laura to Venice – of all the places to go to after your child has died by drowning.

Laura is buttonholed by two elderly English ladies, Wendy and Heather (played by Clelia Matania and Hilary Mason), who claim to know that their daughter is happy beyond the grave. Meanwhile, John sees a tiny figure flitting in and out of the mysterious passageways, wearing a red coat. Is this the ghost of his daughter, who adored her shiny red mac?

Heartbreak in red … the family tragedy.
Heartbreak in red … the family tragedy. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

The colour red is elegantly controlled by Roeg as the central motif in a mosaic of images, subliminal flashes of fear or premonitions of death that speckle John’s traumatised thoughts. Having watched this film many times, and pondered the importance of the red coat and the film’s status in the horror canon, I am still struck by how different its effects are to those of most scary films (despite that narrative influence), although it still manages one of the biggest jump scares in film history, the Fosbury flop of jump scares, when John is wobbling on the high and heartstoppingly unsafe scaffolding to check on a fresco inside the church he’s working on. We glimpse a plank of wood fall through the air, then cut back to John in such a way that we almost forget, for a microsecond, that we have noticed this dangerous object flying towards his head. It’s another of Roeg’s triumphant collaborations with his editor Graeme Clifford.

Then there is the famous sex scene, intercut with shots of the couple dressing afterwards in a very adult, loved-up glow. This was not in Du Maurier’s original story, although it is important to realise how sexual adventure and Venice are intertwined in the drama’s DNA: for Du Maurier, “Venetian” was slang for gay love. Sex scenes in the movies are generally between people who are having sex for the first time. Laura and John are having married sex: they have had sex many times before this, although this is surely the first time since the death of their child, so the sex is a kind of redemptive miracle, a scene that is moving in its frankness and intimacy. Sutherland and Christie are an overwhelmingly convincing married couple, despite being apart for much of the film.

Venice itself has never been more passionately captured on screen. Almost every movie is content with sugary tourist cliches, but Don’t Look Now, despite showing the obvious tourist locations, always shows it as a real working city.

Lastly, that title: it always seems to belong to a much brasher, pulpier and more self-satirising horror film. In fact, the only moment to which the title applies is the scene where John is shocked to see the two old ladies in church and turns away – evidently before they can see him looking at them. They of course know something about John that he does not: his terrible prophetic gift that serves only to condemn him more utterly to his terrible fate.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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