Don’t Look Now

I am working on a few writing projects at the moment, including a horror novel. So watching horror movies counts as research. I watched the Nicholas Roeg film Don’t Look Now (1973) this past May.

The movie stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as John and Laura Baxter. The movie opens with John inexplicably realizing that something is wrong with his daughter. He runs outside and discovers her drowned body. The film then cuts to Venice, several months later, where John is working to restore an old church. One evening while the couple are out eating dinner Laura happens upon two English sisters, one of whom claims to be a psychic who has communicated with her deceased daughter. This has the effect of helping Laura resolve her guilt and depression. John, however, is dubious that a stranger may have communicated with their dead daughter. Laura, taken with the sisters, meets with them again. This results in the psychic issuing a warning that the couple should leave Venice.

The movie depicts the conflict between a couple that is still in crisis over the loss of their child. Their conflict evolves from the tension between rationality and faith, and each one’s acceptance, or nonacceptance, that the woman’s psychic powers are real. Laura, believing in the woman and her predictions, pleads with John to leave Venice. He cannot accept the veracity of the warnings, or that the woman communicated with his daughter. Even as there are hints that the psychic is correctly seeing things, John is too caught up in his rationality and rejects it all as nonsense.

There are hints that John sees the same things as the psychic. I noticed these hints, and thought of them as being strange, weird is probably a better way to put it, as I was watching the movie. Much like John, I missed the point of them. After watching the movie I read a few reviews, something I typically do after I watch a movie. It was in reading the reviews that I caught the significance of these scenes.

I first saw this film as a kid, probably in the early 80’s. I remember two specific things from my viewing of this movie as a kid. First is the red rain coat the daughter was wearing before she drowned. The second thing I remember is John chasing a mysterious child in a similar red rain coat through Venice. This viewing will add to those recollections the scene of his wife on a boat with the two sisters. I remembered the twist ending as well, but the movie didn’t make much sense to me as a kid.

Now I realize that this was not a movie designed for children, this is an adult movie. Not just because of the infamous sex scene (the actors have publicly disagreed over whether they had actual sex in the movie), but because of the themes involved: the loss of a child and the subsequent feelings of grief and depression, the acceptance or nonacceptance of religion and the supernatural, rationality versus faith. It is a suspenseful and well-made movie, if a little silly at times. In the end it has a proper twist ending and it builds up its supernatural credentials well enough (if you are paying attention).

I considered watching the movie again so that I could pick up the clues as I went along. In the end I just sent the disc back to Netflix. The movie was boring. I suppose it is a product of its time and that is the way that movies flowed back then; it was enough to dissuade me from dedicating another two hours at an attempt for a better understanding.

Initial Thoughts On Horror Movies

A little over a week ago my wife and I went to see Crazy Rich Asians. She wanted to see it because she loves romantic comedies. I was not opposed to seeing it because I had read some good reviews of this movie. And it is a good movie; despite going through the romcom checklist, it feels fresh and is quite entertaining. However, this essay is not about Crazy Rich Asians; I am writing about the previews we saw before the movie and my subsequent thinking since then.

Before the movie there were the requisite 3 or 4 upcoming attractions trailers. I do not remember how many. The previews were almost entirely upcoming romantic comedies or period pieces. I do not remember what they were, except for one. The one I remember was for the upcoming horror movie The Nun.

One reason this trailer was so memorable is that it stood out like a sore thumb. It was a non-sequitur within its lineup. Another reason it was memorable was that there was an effective scare at the end of the trailer. I will not spoil it; anyone with an interest should see it for them self.

Since then, I have been thinking about the horror genre. To begin with, I want to define the horror genre as containing elements from outside of the ordinary world: occult, non-human monsters, strange and evil forces. I am guessing (I have little formal expertise in literature) that generally the horror part of the genre focuses on forces beyond humanity and outside of humanity’s ability to control. Horror, then, is based on the idea that there are forces and beings that humanity is powerless against.

This leaves slasher movies and torture porn out of the running. These movies seem to explicitly state that we are our own worst enemies, but also suggest that this enemy is still defeatable. I suppose that A Nightmare on Elm Street presents a hybrid of horror and slasher movie, but in the end Freddy Krueger is usually defeated; at least until the next sequel.

In the horror genre, the antagonistic person or force is not typically defeated. Nor is the antagonist in these stories typically defeatable. Even if the vessel of the evil is defeated, the knowledge and forces that the villain used to express their villainy remain after their demise. In its essence, horror is about forces that are able to go on about their daily business even if their agents are defeated.

I suppose, then, that the most effective horror movie I have seen in many years is A Serious Man, directed by the Coen brothers. It is not a horror movie per se; it is a comic movie, played for laughs. It does still touch on all of the factors that make a good horror movie. Were the musical cues changed to something more ominous I have no doubt that this would be a horrific movie where we see a man’s life torn apart by forces we cannot comprehend.

The preview for The Nun led me to do a little research. I found out that this movie was part of The Conjuring movie universe. So, I watched The Conjuring. It checks off all the horror movies tropes and clichés. The movie is entirely predictable. However, it is an effective horror movie with lots of tension and some good scares.

This got me thinking about other horror movies I have enjoyed. I decided to write a list of horror movies that I enjoy. This is an initial list, off the top of my head. Inasmuch as possible I am attempting to conform to my stated definition about forces outside of humanity’s control. Though there may be internal inconsistencies at present I will remedy this as I have time to think about the subject. This list is not exhaustive, and I hope it can help others refer me to other movies I have not seen before. Here, in no particular order, are my picks for my favorite effective horror movies:

  • The Exorcist
  • Rosemary’s Baby
  • The Others
  • Alien
  • Night of the Living Dead
  • Hellraiser
  • The Babadook
  • It Follows
  • The Shining
  • Poltergeist

This is not an essay designed to deliver a top ten horror movies list. This is the beginning of me thinking about horror as a mode of storytelling. Movies are the main medium in modern times for telling these stories. I got to thinking about horror as the result of a movie trailer. There are also many written tales of horror that I admire. I will be writing about those as well.

This is less an exercise in essay writing for the general public than it is a method for me to start thinking about horror storytelling. As a result of this I am hoping to write an effective horror story of my own. And for me, the place to start is analyzing the subject at hand to death. I hope you find this journey as enjoyable as I do.