Happy Halloween, one and all! Guess how I celebrated the occasion? Why, I went to the cinema, of course!
Not for any old film however, but a special screening of Don’t Look Now, considered one of the greatest horror films, and British films, of all time. I had never seen the film, I knew it by reputation, which sometimes can be daunting; when a film has a substantial reputation, as a critic your expectations immediately go up, so if they are then not met, it can reflect poorly on this film, odd really, as it isn’t the films fault, but we critics are strange creatures.
Anyway, enough waffle, let’s get on with it.
A couple in grieving over the death of their young daughter leave England to work in Venice. There the meet a pair of sisters, one of which carries a message from beyond the grave…
Understand, dear reader, that there are some films which are difficult to summarise without significantly giving away their meaning; Don’t Look Now is one such film. Now, I’ve said multiple times that a film is ‘best experienced in person’ to a point where I fear it may become a cliche, but not only is it best experience in person, but it may not be understood after that either.
Yes, it’s a strange beast this one, one that keeps its secrets well until the final reveal, and we’re left to piece together the preceding events, which will take you quite a while, admittedly, I’m still not sure I quite understand it. But that’s not a criticism, it’s very much part of the films charm.
Along with being difficult to summarise, it’s also hard to pin down this film in genre, common conventions would suggest it belong to the horror genre, but it’s one of the more subtle horrors, a sense of creeping unease, as opposed to unadulterated terror, it carves a dent across your buttocks from the edge of your seat, where you will be permanently perched.
The film creates a truly immersive atmosphere, leading you down twists and turns, making you second guess yourself, as opposed to bombarding you with cheap scares, it leaves most of the scares in your own head, leading you to drawn your own conclusions before pulling the rug from beneath you. It’s a masterful display of how to do tension in a variety of settings.
The camerawork is perhaps the greatest aid in building the atmosphere, mixing a claustrophobic atmosphere in dark, secluded alleys, and open, and spectacular, plazas during the day, the juxtaposition is incredible, in this 4K restoration, the open Venetian landscape looks particularly beautiful. Just as the darkness lends a hand to the pressure the film puts on your mind later on.
From a performance standpoint, the film is sparsely populated, but it is about quality, not quantity. Donald Sutherland is towering in this film, forceful in parts, and emotionally vulnerable in others, he capably shoulders the strongest character of the piece, ably accompanied by an equally multi-faceted performance from Julie Christie, it helps that at the heart of this jigsaw puzzle narrative lies two characters the audience can really sympathise with, and get behind.
In summary then, this is an instance on a film richly deserving its reputation, even its final twist, which sounds ridiculous and contrived on paper, makes perfect sense in the context of the film and even manages to shock now, nearly fifty years on. I wish more horror films would take a cue from this film on how to build a perfect atmosphere, if more horror were like this, I’d think more of the genre. It is just as much of a masterpiece as it’s reputation suggests.