John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) are filled with sorrow after their daughter dies in a drowning accident. In order to temporarily escape their grief, they move to a cold and desolate Venice. John has been hired to repair the dilapidated San Nicolò dei Mendicoli church.
One day at a restaurant, Laura, feeling sad, encounters two sisters named Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania. One of them, a blind clairvoyant, asserts that she can see and talk to her deceased daughter, Christine. John, on the other hand, appears to reject this idea but continues to catch glimpses of a child in a red coat, similar to his own daughter, disappearing around corners and into alleys in the foggy and dark city.
While in Venice, there is a killer on the loose. Laura returns home to be with their son after he gets injured at his British boarding school, leaving John alone to succumb to his delusions.
Based on a supernatural short story by Daphne du Maurier and directed by Nicolas Roeg, Don’t Look Now is a poignant and emotional depiction of marriage and the pain of losing a child, while also being a chilling and at times frightening horror movie.
After fifty years since its release in 1973, the movie has achieved a permanent spot on numerous “best of” rankings, including Best British film, best horror film, best film of the 1970s, and even best film overall.
Many people, even if they haven’t watched Don’t Look Now, will probably recognize its most memorable scenes. These include the opening scene of a drowning little girl in a red raincoat being pulled out of a pond by her father, the intimate and loving sex scene between John and Laura, and the shocking conclusion.
Additionally, the movie effectively combines its visual elements with its overall mood. The desolate, dreary setting of off-season Venice serves as a backdrop for bursts of vibrant red that appear repeatedly – on laundry hanging on a line, a glass candle holder, and a painted door – constantly reminding us of Christine’s untimely demise.
Similar to other films by Roeg, the editing done by Graeme Clifford takes us back and forth through time, sometimes within the same scene. This creates a disorienting feeling in the film, much like John’s search for the child in the red coat through the city.
Throughout the story, there are ominous signs. John almost plunges to his demise from the scaffolding while examining a church mosaic and the candle that Laura lit for Christine in the church extinguishes. John witnesses the discovery of a woman’s body, bearing a striking resemblance to his wife, being retrieved from the canal. Later, he spots Laura with the two peculiar sisters, dressed in black on a funeral barge, despite knowing she was en route back to England. The presence of water in Venice serves as a constant reminder of the underlying tragedy.
Can this explain why Don’t Look Now is still popular with viewers and reviewers after 50 years? Maybe. However, it is also worth examining the film’s connection to the horror genre.
Released in the same year as The Exorcist, Don’t Look Now shares commonalities with the latter in its focus on religious themes and iconography. However, The Exorcist ultimately gained more widespread recognition and cultural impact.
The original film was followed by two sequels, a prequel, and a television series. The most recent addition, The Exorcist: Believer (2023), continues the story and has the potential to create a new trilogy. Both films can be considered excellent horror movies, however, The Exorcist achieved blockbuster success and spawned a franchise, while Don’t Look Now is an independent film that has earned its own acclaim.
It is beneficial to examine the continued reputation of Don’t Look Now in connection with a commonly used term in modern times: “post-horror” movies. These films move away from the traditional elements of jump scares and graphic violence typically found in the horror genre, and instead focus on themes of trauma and a gradual feeling of unease that supposedly appeals to more intellectual and discerning audiences.
Post-horror films also don’t tend to spawn sequels or endless franchises, an aspect of the wider genre that has contributed to its status as one of the most commercially resilient but critically derided.
To describe a film as post-horror is to acknowledge the hierarchy that has long existed within the genre. This reveals the select few films deemed by critics to be worthy of their position alongside cinema’s other great works, and the apparent vast wasteland of repetitive, gory schlock traditionally associated with the genre.
Don’t Look Now is certainly worthy of its place in the pantheon of cinema’s great works. But it is always worth asking when it appears on a “best of” list, what broader factors are at stake in its largely unchallenged position as one of the great works in film history. While Roeg’s film enjoys an elevated critical reputation, it is safe to say that the genre with which it most often identified certainly does not.
Although it may be tempting to overlook the artistic approach to horror in evaluating Don’t Look Now, this should not diminish its impact. The film’s poignant beginning, understated yet intense sex scene, and brutal conclusion have solidified its lasting relevance in the critical realm even after 50 years. Its stunning and melancholic nature lingers with viewers well beyond the end credits.
Gregory Frame holds the position of Teaching Associate in Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham.