Don't Look Now: Technically Dazzling, but Narratively Lacking (Criterion 4K/Blu-ray)
In the 1970s, a very popular trend for horror films at the time was to feature an over-arching and very palpable sense of doom & gloom through the use of mood & atmosphere. Films like "Rosemary's Baby," "The Wicker Man," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and "The Omen" always gave you the sense that something terrible was happening or would be happening shortly, with the filmmakers very purposefully & skillfully putting you in this uncomfortable position through the various means of their crafts. Admittedly it didn't always work out, but when the writing was strong and the story compelling, it often resulted in an experience that was hard to shake after.
Another entry that falls right under this category is Nicolas Roeg's 1973 film "Don't Look Now," a horror outing in which the pervasive sense of dread is so thick, it could be cut with a knife. This week, in celebration of its 50th anniversary, the prestigious Criterion Collection is giving the film its distinguished 4K upgrade, so as usual, there's no better time to go back and examine it to see where it falls in this distinctly gloomy grouping of horror flicks.
At the start of the film, we witness the tragic drowning of young Christine, daughter of John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie), at their home in England. Afterward, John and Laura travel to Venice where John has accepted a job of restoring an old church. While out dining one day, Laura meets a pair of sisters, one of whom claims to have "second sight" and wants her to know that she can see Christine. This has a strong effect on Laura, who faints shortly after, but recovers quickly with a determination to reach out to her deceased daughter with the sisters' help. John is highly skeptical, especially when they try to warn him that he's in danger while in Venice, but as strange events begin to occur around him, he just might find out too late that he should've listened.
As mentioned, a major trend of '70s horror was indeed to give the audience an uneasy, unshakable sense of dread, a feeling that something awful could happen to the characters at any time. Sometimes this resulted in great classics, like "The Wicker Man," a bizarre tale of a policeman searching for a missing girl on an island populated by pagans, or "The Omen," in which a father comes to the conclusion that his son just might be the antichrist. On the other hand, sometimes the idea just didn't pan out, like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," where doom & gloom doesn't help cover up a rather repetitive & sluggish story.
When it comes to "Don't Look Now," it's unfortunate to have to say that it falls into the latter category. It starts off intriguingly enough, with tragedy leading to a desperate desire to make contact with a deceased loved one, but screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant (working from a story by Daphne Du Maurier) just don't do a whole lot with it. Roeg & co. clearly wanted to make a film that was a meditation on loss, grief, and how to deal with the difficult aftermath, but what we end up with is a curious film that never really dives into those areas in any significant manner.
The film is certainly artfully made, incorporating the gorgeous scenery of Venice with skilled direction and cinematography, all in service to giving it the aforementioned over-arching feeling of dread. Even the editing is on the jarring side to put you even further into that uneasy feeling as you watch these two wander about Venice. However, skillfully applied mood & atmosphere will only get you so far. After a while, you start to notice that the film simply doesn't have much in the way of substance to it, what with its noted reluctance to delve into the elements that it seems to want to tackle.
Because of this, the film feels like it mostly meanders about, teasing us with interesting possibilities, but not really trying to form a more engaging plot until well over halfway through. At this point, they try to turn the film into a mystery by incorporating various elements that we've seen throughout (Laura's relationship with the sisters, multiple murders in Venice, etc.), and it's easily the best part of the film (leading right up to the somewhat famous ending), but even so, it feels like a classic case of "too little, too late." It merely makes you wonder if it might have been more effective had they managed to break out this part of the plot much sooner, instead of taking far too much time setting it up.
Again, the craft is impeccable, and is doubtless the main reason many consider the film to be a classic, but, as it often comes down to, the writing simply leaves a little too much to be desired. This is a story that had great potential, taking terrible tragedy and the desperation that such grief would bring and combining it with the supernatural, but sadly it never fully takes advantage of these intriguing aspects, ultimately resulting in a film that is technically mesmerizing, but narratively lacking.
This new edition of "Don't Look Now" features the film on both 4K (2160p) and Blu-ray (1080p) in gorgeously restored transfers, presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film simply looks stunning from beginning to end, highlighting the film's beautiful imagery and making it look the best it has in years. Likewise, the uncompressed monaural soundtrack is outstanding, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and Pino Donaggio's haunting score in excellent quality. As usual, Criterion has done a magnificent job giving another classic new life.
Don't Look Now, Looking Back (19 Minutes)
Death in Venice (18 Minutes)
Something Interesting (30 Minutes)
Nicolas Roeg: The Enigma of Film (14 Minutes)
Graeme Clifford and Bobbie O'Steen (43 Minutes)
Nicolas Noeg at Cine Lumiere (48 Minutes)
This edition comes with nearly three hours of outstanding extras, mostly consisting of fascinating interviews with the cast & crew, including Roeg, Christie, Sutherland, DP Anthony Richmond, and editor Graeme Clifford. Definitely plenty worth delving into.
Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now" is a technically dazzling horror outing that skillfully uses its various crafts (direction, editing, music, etc.) to give it a remarkable sense of dread throughout, but which sadly ends up lacking a little too much when it comes to its narrative, which never takes full advantage of its more intriguing elements, resulting in a film that's gorgeous, but ultimately frustrating.
Now available on Criterion 4K/Blu-ray.
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