Horror I Love - Don't Look Now
(Warning: Massive spoilers throughout. But then, if you haven't seen this film, why haven't you seen this film?)
A man is working in his study while the children play in the garden.
He has plans to visit a church, hundreds of miles away in watery Venice, and restore it to its former glory.
So the photographic slides he’s looking through – stained glass and mosaic-brick – are evocative of the future, as well as the past.
He picks up one slide, and sees something strange there.
A red-robed figure, its face turned from the camera, is sitting in a pew, facing the church’s altar.
As he leans in to examine it, he jogs something on his busy desk – thick, red fluid spills across the slide, rolling forward, obscuring the figure.
And at this moment, gazing down at the drowning slide, the man has a sudden and inexplicable vision of his own daughter, who is herself wearing a red anorak, slipping away from him into murky water, dying in their garden pond.
From this moment, his fate is sealed.
'She told you. Leave Venice. She told you.'
Later, bereaved and working away his pain in a strange city, the father will be haunted by a peculiar vision. A small, red-coated figure, reflected in the water of the canals beneath, fleeing from him through the streets of Venice.
He becomes determined to follow it, to confront it, because (wordlessly) he understands that this feels like a completion of the supernatural pattern that was revealed to him that day in his study. This is squaring the circle of his vision. This is rescuing his daughter from death.
Everything, rational and irrational, is pointing to the fact that there is something very wrong with this picture. There’s a serial killer at work in the city. Bodies are being dredged from the water. The figure itself has once been accompanied by a horrifying scream. And the man’s wife has become close to an apparently psychic woman, who claims that his daughter’s spirit is warning of terrible danger if he continues down this path.
And the weird thing is that (on a first watch, at least) none of this matters to us as audience members.
We understand the father’s unconscious drive to seek out the red-coated figure and find his answer, because we too have been entranced by the recurring symbols and elements that occur in transitions throughout Don’t Look Now: red falling into water, water transforming into glass, mirrors reflecting grotesque faces lurking in the shadows. All of this seems to be pointing to a larger pattern. It must surely point to a larger pattern.
And we ignore the warning signs because we, too, are lost in Venice, discombobulated by the weird artifacts that keep showing up down every alleyway, and the horrible bursts of noise from unexpected directions. An abandoned doll, half-drenched in water. The sound of piano scales, being practiced in a window. Blinds slamming shut. The hideous honk of a barge’s horn. What does all of this mean? What does any of this mean?
And so when the father finally chases the red-coated figure into an abandoned house, into a corner where it stands with its back turned to him (yeah, I see you, Blair Witch Project, you outright thieves), and it turns to face him, he’s confronted with…
…the absurd horror of a universe that does not have an underlying meaning or order. The movie lied to us. The colour red did not belong to his daughter. The visions were not leading the father towards redemption or resolution. The patterns were all in our heads.
I normally find that Don’t Look Now is described as a kind of anti-rational, Jungian thesis, in which the father’s stubborn refusal to come to terms with his own psychic powers ends up causing his death.
I think that holds, but I see it as more than that. To me, it’s thematically an absurdist horror film, one in which we’re confronted by an absolute lack of meaning or purpose to our experiences, by the realisation that the underlying patterns we thought we could see guiding our movements were nothing but random, horrible chance all along - two very different figures, who happened to be dressed in a similar red coat.
And, finally, we understand that our search for sense in a meaningless universe has destroyed us.
It's funny, because right up until its final moment (when the embodiment of the father's doom literally shakes its head at him), there's nothing to suggest this in the tone of the film.
You wouldn't immediately consider a comparison between Don't Look Now and the great works of absurdist fiction, which is perhaps surprising, given that this is a film about a man stranded in a labyrinthine city, struggling to communicate, often embarrassing himself, forced to explain himself to weird bureaucrats who seem to have their own hidden motives. But the dark humour that exists in the film sits in the gaps, and its protagonist is not portrayed as a fool.
It is absolutely sincere, right up until the red coat turns.
And that's how it gets us.
It's like a city in aspic, wrapped over from a dinner party, where all the guests are dead or gone.
Why is Don’t Look Now great cinema?
Because it wouldn’t work nearly as well, or draw the audience into its bloody trap nearly as effectively, in any other medium. (See Daphne du Maurier’s short story, which ends by basically scoffing at its own protagonist and premise – “What a bloody silly way to die,” the wife pronounces at the end.)
Why is Don’t Look Now great horror?
Because it isn’t cruel, like the short story – but it is merciless.
Because it keeps us on edge from start to finish, with its dreamy symbolism, with its use of the winding streets of Venice, above all with the strange and discordant sound design (at one point, just as a dead body is hauled from a river upside-down, we hear a child’s harsh, uncomprehending peal of laughter. My God, I wish more horror creators understood the advantage, the uncanny impact of placing that sound against that image.)
Because John and Laura, husband and wife, are two of the most human, wounded, deeply sympathetic horror protagonists, and as we understand their pain we fear for them all the more.
Because the final vision of terror is only so awful because it so completely undermines the associations that the film has built up, the two images it’s connected, irrevocably in our heads; of a red coat with a child’s happy, angelic face.
Excuse me while I go watch it again.