It’s the last week of October and the last week of the HorrorThon – what to watch? Favorites. And here’s yours
She says it’s like a city in aspic, wrapped over from a dinner party where all the guests are dead and gone.
When I asked for your favorite horror suggestions, I did not expect Don’t Look Now. Not one, not two, but several people specified this 1973 Nicolas Roeg film, which is known in America for having an explicitly long sex scene, and everywhere else for giving people the legitimate creeps. I couldn’t be happier, really, because if there was ever an example of “art-horror,” here it is. Plus, it’s going to allow me to recommend The Witches to everyone, and that’s just perfect.
If you’re unfamiliar with Nicolas Roeg, that’s no surprise, because he’s truly the auteur that goes under everybody’s radar. But he is a film artist, in my opinion: there’s no way you can watch a Roeg movie and not see a distinct visual signature. His shot composition evokes something between Terrence Malick’s expanses of space and William Friedkin’s crowding of the frame. This film, a sort of suspense-thriller with a supernatural condition, may remind you of The Exorcist, which released the same year – and though far more subtle, it may provide the same sense of disturbance and malaise as that legendary film did. Depends on the type of person you are. Depends on what it is that scares you.
What Don’t Look Now does best is atmosphere. Set in Venice, there is a sense of inescapable entrapment, both for the characters and ourselves; the camera work focuses on tight alleyways, the corners of rooms, empty hotels with furniture wrapped in sheets. After the drowning death of their daughter in England, the ironic beauty of Venice is even more apparent for its surrounding of the couple by water.
The church that Donald Sutherland’s character, John Baxter, is restoring is crumbling (all the more beautiful for it), and haunted by its own living bishop, who has a distinct air of aloof and possibly corrupt about him. OSHA is nowhere near this construction site, and it presents its own series of threats to the architect as he works to complete it. At times (most of the time), it would seem the church itself is against him. Venice, too, which keeps showing him glimpses of his dead daughter, running in her red macintosh through the night.
Those sort of visions – premonitions – are what drive Don’t Look Now to an unsettling, and bizarre, conclusion. On this third watch, it all makes quite a bit of sense to me. In fact, its pieces fit together so nicely, the supernatural logic seems absolutely inevitable to me, if not totally normal and expected. This is not how I remember feeling the first time I saw it, so don’t worry. I’d expect you may feel shocked by the ending – at the very least, I presume you’ll have a similar reaction to John, as he walks to a place he has been before, eyes wide, asking, “Wait.”
You could focus on any number of themes in analyzing this film, but in light of the women we’ve been looking at in others, I’m drawn to the way the ladies of Don’t Look Now are seen by the other characters and Roeg’s camera. An inspector, looking over police sketches of two women Baxter has described as potential kidnappers, notes that as women age, they look more and more like each other. Unlike men, who become more distinct, women “converge.” Women, especially as a unit, are a threat. Enough for the police to arrest two elderly women, one of whom is blind, for suspicion of murder, before the woman they are looking for is even ruled as missing.
In some beautifully poetic editing, shots of these two threatening women laughing are interspersed with otherwise serious moments that would seem not to involve them at all. But as the famous Soviet Kuleshov experiment teaches us, when two shots are intercut, our brains immediately try to create meaning in order to connect them. The gut reaction in this case is that these women are sinister, and somehow responsible for the goings on in the other scene. Roeg also superimposes the blind woman’s face, specifically her white eyes, over other shots. For Exorcist fans, this should evoke the quick flashes of this fellow between scenes. What Friedkin used as a device to subconsciously prime his audience for fright, Roeg uses in a much more delicate and visible manner, her face lying across the scene for whole seconds. The effect is still subconscious, but the painterly hand with which it’s applied makes it stranger, surreal, and longer lasting on the psyche. It should make you skeptical, and leery, of the women, too.
The body being pulled from the water in Venice. It’s the first mention we’ve ever had of a murderer being on the loose in the city, but John and the Bishop speak as though they’ve known of it this whole time. Meanwhile, as the viewer, we’re absorbing that information, while watching direct evidence be dragged up and out like a piece of meat. Not to mention, the red coat she’s wearing, and her faint resemblance to Sutherland’s wife.
Other Things to Notice:
Don’t Look Now is sort of the anti-Exorcist for me. The films evoke each other many times – Catholicism, the supernatural, little girls in danger, good men threatened by something wicked (and something female, by the way). But while Friedkin’s Exorcist sees a potential solution to the problem by way of, well, exorcism, Roeg’s film doesn’t even pretend such a resolution exists. Everything in Don’t Look Now is fated from the first frame. That, to me, is what makes it so disturbing, and so different – most films rely on the notion that the antagonist can be defeated. If the antagonist in Don’t Look Now is fate itself, or Sutherland’s premonitions of what will occur, then there is no way around it. The antagonist will win. Yet, as viewers, we are somehow still captivated, and still surprised, when the last frame echoes the first.
Oh – when you watch The Witches (required), remember the intercut scenes of the ladies laughing – cackling, even. It’s like Roeg is practicing.
If You Like it, Watch:
The Witches: I told you, it’s required. I was going to make this the “show the kids” recommendation, and then I remembered how terrible this scene is. Think twice before you scar your child with this one (or show it to them – your kid might turn out a lot like me). But do watch it yourself on a dark, stormy night and bow down to the Queen of all witches ever, Ms. Anjelica Huston.
Walkabout: I really believe more Americans film-goers should be familiar with Roeg, so let’s not beat around the bush. Check out this drama/adventure/terrifying-horror-story about a brother and sister abandoned and lost in the Australian outback. It is stunning, both visually and psychologically.
*click for the trailer*
**Curious what’s to come next? Be on the lookout this week for a clue at next month’s theme and where One Critical Bitch is headed next. And a giveaway – there should always be a giveaway.