Based on a story by Daphne du Maurier, Don’t Look Now is a psychically charged tragic thriller. You could call it a horror film, but there are no zombies, aliens, conspiratorial witches, or little girls with spinning heads spewing green slime. No, this is a terror that besets a seemingly together family that slowly descends into madness.

From an opening shot of a murky pond being whipped by rain in a driving storm, we quickly zoom in on the pond to wonder what horrific demons could be lurking in this dark water. As much as his image construction, the camera angles and movement are what lends a dreamlike atmosphere to Nicolas Roeg’s film.

Donald Sutherland plays an architectural restoration expert who is currently reviewing slides of a church in Venice he is scheduled to restore. While viewing one slide he notices the out-of-place figure of a small person in a red, hooded raincoat kneeling in one of the pews. At the same time, his daughter is playing outside the house by the pond.

While using a magnifying glass to investigate this odd image, he spills water on the slide. Outside the house a foot splashes in a puddle and a bike rides over a pane of glass that we hear breaking. The hooded figure dissolves into a pool on the rest of the slide, and Sutherland strains to find the meaning. His mood goes from curiosity to concern to terror before he finally acts. He runs frantically outside to find his daughter drowned, and as he stands there with her in his arms, wailing at the heavens in slow motion, the camera moves above and around him standing there in that murky pond. We know that the character has psychic abilities, and we’re frustrated by his own intense denial and refusal to believe. For this he pays a price.

Julie Christie plays his wife, who is both much less intense and less rational than he is. The death of their daughter weighs heavy on her. While in a restaurant she helps a woman remove something from her eye. “You look sad,” says the woman’s wide blue-eyed blind companion. “She’s psychic,” explains the woman. “I’ve seen her. She’s happy,” the psychic reassures the wife, describing the red coat the girl was wearing. Relieved yet disturbed, the wife returns to the dinner table, tells her husband what the psychic said, and promptly faints. Later we find the husband ranting that “she’s not coming back” and insisting that these things are not rational. But by then we know there’s a parallel world that the husband won’t acknowledge, and we just want to slap him, because we know things are only going to get more vivid for him — and scarier for us.

This film reminds me of two other great am-I-going-nuts-or-what films, The Dead of Night and The Haunting. These films force us to question the sanity and therefore the safety of characters a lot like us in their complacency about their own sanity.

Don’t Look Now is at the Michigan Theater on Monday, October 17.

[Review published October 2005]