Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now Is a Masterwork of Psychological Horror

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Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now Is a Masterwork of Psychological Horror

This weekend saw the loss of one of cinema’s most distinctive voices: the great British filmmaker, Nicolas Roeg. While his directorial career boasted a singular, yet diverse, range of films dating from 1970 all the way to 2014, Roeg will no doubt be remembered best for his genre-dismantling art-horror masterpiece, Don’t Look Now.


Today, most audiences will recognize movies like Ari Aster’s Hereditary for blazing the way for director-driven horror films that imbue a flavor of non-conventional filmmaking into a genre that, for many, is traditionally formulaic and predictable. But in interviews, Aster actually pointed toward Don’t Look Now for inspiring the sort of bizarre, plot-eschewing auteur style that he so elegantly captured in his critically beloved Hereditary.

While it’s not a commonly known horror movie on the level of, say, Halloween, pull up any major Top 50 or Top 100 list of cinema and you’ll likely find Roeg’s 1973 Venice-based psychological thriller within the upper echelons of the rankings. A kind of subdued nightmare that’s mostly remembered for its extremely explicit sex scene between its curly-haired stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, Don’t Look Now is just as haunting and unbelievable as any major classic of horror. Yet it seems to only maintain a legacy among the stuffy circles of cinephile culture.

Like Hereditary, Roeg’s film muddles through the emotional jellyfish tank of a family member’s death, inspecting the grey area between the unthinkable moment and the burden of acceptance that inevitably must occur. In Don’t Look Now, the dead person that’s looming over the film is the well-to-do couple’s young daughter, who is barely more than a toddler when she drowns outside their dewey, verdant home in a nearby pond. While Hereditary uses the family’s house as the gathering point for all the inter-dimensional wraiths and sad memories that death can accumulate, Don’t Look Now is interested in the ghosts of trauma that continue to follow us throughout life, even when we run far away from the places where the bad thing occurred.

Don’t Look Now is interested in the ghosts of trauma that continue to follow us throughout life, even when we run far away from the places where the bad thing occurred.

In an effort to forcefully push through the icy cold red waters of their daughter’s drowning, Sutherland and Christie’s characters temporarily drop their anchors in the famous man-made canal city of Venice. But as the nights set in, a string of murders start to pop up in the news, and Sutherland’s John Baxter, an otherwise seemingly well-put-together architect, begins to spot a figure draped in a red raincoat—the same shade of red as the coat that his daughter wore when she drowned—skulking around the vacuous and shadow-draped corridors of Italy’s legendary “City of Dreams.” Is it a demon? Or a mental projection? The film’s inexplicably bizarre circus-of-the-mind editing style suggests either explanation, creating for a narrative experience that at times evokes a soapy romance, and other times feels like a full-on torture chamber.

Unraveling the cliched, romantic myth of Venice, Don’t Look Now employs the maze-like alleyways and pitch-black waters of the popularly blissful, happy gondola town as a sort of living embodiment of the unfathomably tangled web of neuropathways that exist deep in the abyss of the subconscious mind. When stricken with grief, as seen in both Roeg and Aster show in their films, these brain highways become warped, hollowed-out, and downright gruesome.

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Paramount Pictures

Since the actual filmmaking of Don’t Look Now is carried out much in the same mindset as its psychically traumatized characters, the film itself is seems to live and thrive most prominently in the subconscious of the viewer. This emotionally fluent storytelling, the type that can be seen in the films of heart-strong auteurs like Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci, is a very unique and special sort of cinematic language. When carried out successfully, it can have the effect of a sort of brain parasite, latching onto your cerebellum, wreaking havoc on your daydreams, and inspiring the phantoms of your nightmares for years to come.

You may not know, exactly, what the hell is going on in Don’t Think Twice. It can be a burden to watch, and it can perplex the judgment of even the most adventurous filmgoers. But whatever it is, exactly, that happens in the ending of this film, it’s not something that you’ll soon forget—just like the towering cinematic career of Nicolas Roeg. Though a lot of Roeg’s work is a bit difficult to get a hold of, Don’t Look Now is available now on DVD and Blu-ray in an expectedly thorough and exhaustive edition from The Criterion Collection.

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