The middling menace-in-Venice horror film Don’t Look Now, based on a Daphne du Maurier novella, is low on chills but high on arty, foreboding atmosphere. The latter quality is to be expected of celebrated cameraman-turned-auteur Nicolas Roeg. Church restoration expert Donald Sutherland is in the city to work on an old basilica, with wife Julie Christie in tow. The two are racked with grief and guilt following the accidental drowning of their little daughter. Except for one lovemaking scene, fragmented by showy slice-and-dice editing left over from the psychedelic era, the two are alienated from each other. One suspects that pages of their aimless dialogue could be ripped from the script and the story wouldn’t suffer.
Roeg’s Venice is remarkably free of tourists, gondolas, or even movie extras. It’s a noirish maze of back canals, arched footbridges, time-blackened bricks and rat-infested sewers, reminiscent of The Third Man’s war-torn Vienna. In all, an ideal setting for ghostly glimpses of the couple’s daughter in a Red Riding Hood slicker. The creep factor rises whenever a pair of spinster sisters show up. One is blind but clairvoyant, and Christie quickly gets sucked in with hopes of reaching her dead child.
Christie is mostly in a faraway mental place while Sutherland, who alternates between two expressions—vacant stare and shit-eating grin—is difficult to read. He finally gets animated when he performs an astonishing midair, hold-your-breath stunt as a rain of multicoloured tiles clack on the church floor below. Like a rebuttal to the the film’s plodding tale, Roeg employs a shock ending so audacious it must be seen to be believed. But lest his trickery be lost on slower viewers, Sutherland spells it out with the line, “Nothing is as it seems.”