There’s a fine moment near the center of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) where a police inspector looks Donald Sutherland in the eye and says, in a voice dripping with dark possibility, “What are you fearing, Mr. Baxter?” It’s a provocative question for the film. Normally in a horror movie, we know what’s out to get us: slashers, ghosts, the living dead, the birds, the fog, etc. But who or what is the villain in Don’t Look Now? There is one, I suppose, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the infamous scare that comes at the end. But the overriding mood of Don’t Look Now is one of exquisitely evocative paranoia: a trap where we feel that some unknown conspiracy of some unknown purpose is afoot, and every bit player—even the hotel chambermaid, even the police inspector himself—seems like they’re in on it.
And so, from the Golden Age of Paranoia (the 1970s) comes a film whose very irrationality elevates it above its brethren: for once, we can’t so easily tell where it’s going. I can’t help but think of how fitting it is that it came out at almost the precise midpoint between Alfred Hitchcock’s last masterpiece and David Lynch’s first. The Hitchcock link is more than spiritual; the story derives from Daphne Du Maurier, who provided the source material for The Birds (1963) and Rebecca (1940). Thus we open when a couple (Sutherland and Julie Christie) lose their daughter in a terrible accident. And, then, some years later, on a trip to Venice, they begin to think they see her…
The plot that unfolds puts us in the realm of schlock and pulp, with murderers and clairvoyants wandering about. But Roeg—formerly a cinematographer, and it shows—exercises a rigorous control over the visuals, carrying it into the realm of dreams. I know viewers who find it slow, who chafe at the dialogue-free stretches and absence of chances to laugh, which means that it’s become the kind of “director’s movie” treasured by cinephiles and formalists above all else. But I couldn’t go without its way of spooking you. Tense and ambiguous to the end, it hits the sweet spot where it leaves just enough said and unsaid to be both lucid, coherent, and aimed directly at the subconscious.
Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.