Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where the new year brings a new movie (to me at least) that I get to discuss with some of the best voices in horror. This month, I’m talking to filmmaking duo Emily Bennett and Justin Brooks, whose debut feature Alone With You comes out February 4th in theaters and February 8th on VOD. And a hell of a debut it is, as their story about a woman trapped in her apartment is filled with dread and is also shockingly dynamic given most of it was shot with just the two of them in one location during quarantine.
Bennett and Brooks have explained that part of what makes their collaborations work is that they bring different sensibilities to their films, with Brooks having grown up on mainstream horror and Bennett being drawn to more independent, arthouse fare. So I was interested to see what movies they’d want to discuss as a duo, and they landed on a very intriguing choice, the 1973 Nicholas Roeg thriller Don’t Look Now.
Now, I’m going to throw out my standard blanket spoiler warning early because even in the synopsis I’m going to cover all of the major plot points. Dare we move forward? Good, on we go.
The film introduces the Baxter family spending a lazy Sunday at home, with parents John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) puttering around the living room and kids Christine (Sharon Williams) and Johnny (Nicholas Salter) playing out in the yard. When John seemingly has a premonition that Christine is in danger, he rushes outside to find out he’s too late, with Christine having drowned in their pond trying to fetch a ball. Cut to Venice, where Laura and John are trying to move forward with their lives until a chance encounter with English tourist Heather (Hillary Mason) and her psychic sister, Wendy (Clelia Matania), reveals to Laura that their daughter is happy in the afterlife.
While Laura becomes enthralled with the comfort provided by Wendy’s abilities, John remains skeptical, even as it’s revealed that he unknowingly has clairvoyant abilities himself. As John gets strange visions, including what looks to be a small girl in a red jacket that looks strikingly similar to the one his daughter wore at the beginning of the film, he begins to believe the girl may be the late Christine. Through a series of seemingly disparate events, including strange visions, a near-death experience, and the threat of a serial killer in the city, the film climaxes as John finally tracks down the girl. But he finds out that she’s not his daughter but instead an older little person, who subsequently attacks him with a knife. As he bleeds out, a montage of his visions reveals that he’d been having premonitions of his own death all along.
Now, while all the movies in this column are ones I’ve never seen, I usually have at least a basic grasp on the broad strokes of the story. This wasn’t the case for Don’t Look Now, however, as the only thing I knew about it going in was that it involved a tragic death and featured a sex scene between Sutherland and Christie that at the time seemed so realistic it was rumored to have been unsimulated. I think going into the film as cold as I did really enhanced the experience, so I wondered what Brooks’ and Bennett’s experiences were the first time they watched it.
Justin Brooks: I actually saw it many, many years ago to the point where I actually couldn't remember what the film was about. I remembered it being Donald Sutherland and that's about all I remembered. It had been ages, and we revisited it because Ari Aster and Robert Eggers were huge fans and kept mentioning it.
Emily Bennett: I listened to Ari aster and Robert Eggers on the A24 podcast. I've listened to that podcast episode a million times because I’m a huge dork, but they brought up Don't Look Now, and Ari Aster brought it up in regard to Hereditary with the deep, familiar grief and the strained relationship between the couple. And he kept bringing up Don't Look Now and I had never seen it. Sometimes on a Sunday morning I'll just pick a random old movie to wake up and watch, and I watched that one alone in our living room.
I was just so struck by the editing more than anything, the style of the editing, the memory blending, and the themes of grief and fate. So I immediately saw why Ari Aster used that as a reference for Hereditary. But it was great to revisit it for this because it's an oddly simple story with a kind of coincidence as an ending, at least on the surface. It never quite scared me, but the feeling I had the first time I watched it was this sense of your fate haunting you.
Don’t Look Now doesn’t lean into traditional horror tropes, as it focuses more on the family drama elements. In fact, Brooks recalls the film having little effect on him when he saw it as a kid, as he was more used to scares from boogeymen like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. But as Bennett explains, unlike a lot of horror movies, this one gets scarier as you get older.
Emily Bennett: If I had had the experience of watching the film as a child, then I don't think I would call this a horror movie at all. I think as an adult with more emotional maturity than I had when I was a child, and empathy for parents (even though I'm not a parent myself), what really scares me about this film is that Donald Sutherland is on a journey where he has free will, and he is choosing to go where he's going. He's chosen this job after the death of his daughter, he's choosing to chase this red figure through the city, thinking it's his daughter. He's choosing all of this, and we know emotionally he can't choose anything else. He could if he wanted to, but he is literally running towards his own death this entire film. And so I think in a way, I don't know if you've seen Lake Mungo or films that kind of turn back on themselves, he’s literally haunting himself in a way.
And what becomes truly terrifying is the fact that Roeg plays with the notions of free will while also making you question whether or not Sutherland’s grief would allow him to take any path other than the one that leads to his downfall. Bennett points out that these themes go back to Greek myths such as Orpheus and Eurydice that speak to humanity’s obsession with cheating fate.
Emily Bennet: Donald Sutherland, he's given this premonition where in the very beginning he's looking at this slide that has [what we find out to be] the serial killer woman in it. She's the one sitting in the church, meanwhile his daughter is wearing the same red mac outside and drowning. And yet he sees maybe that's her in the future, and so it's this haunting grief that drives him to find out if that somehow could be her. Somewhere in time is there a different reality where she might live? And I think it's that whisper of hope, when you've lost the dearest thing to you, that hope is the most dangerous thing you can offer someone in terrible grief.
Justin Brooks: He also can't trust his visions the way [Wendy] can. We get the control, we get to see what happens with somebody who understands it and can follow up on it, can act upon it. We have him, who has this second sight but doesn't understand it, who has no idea what it means. And it actually gets him into trouble because he follows these false leads down these different directions because he flat out doesn't understand it. It exemplifies how much he doesn't understand when he literally sees his own funeral but doesn't understand that to be a vision. He just immediately starts looking for his wife, and that brings him down other paths. It's interesting that in grief we can't even trust our own vision, we can't trust ourselves.
The dynamic between Sutherland’s impulsiveness and Christie’s rational approach provides an interesting subversion of the “logical” man and the “spirited” woman one usually finds in supernatural horror. Brooks explains that it also changes up the dynamic from the tropes you might expect in a story where parents have lost their child.
Justin Brooks: It flips the idea even in the bereavement, where you would expect the mother to mourn the loss of the child. You would expect the mother to hold on to that, to get eaten away. A more common film would just let the mother get eaten away as the father tries to help and tries to provide while the mother just loses her grip on reality. In this, not only does she seem okay, she also honestly seems oddly over it. She even says when the psychic brings it up with her, she takes it as a wonderful omen and it puts her at peace. Whereas all it ever does is irritate and anger and drive Donald Sutherland's character forward. The woman is far more reasonable in all of this.
Emily Bennett: She's reasonable and yet open to this supernatural presence, because she meets these women in the bathroom where we get this beautiful shot in the mirror. It's one of my favorite shot scenes, the way the mirrors come together. And you see these women and that's the first time the film, besides the grief of the beginning… you know that roller coaster drop in your stomach? I'm like, “Oh, what is this, what's going on here?” And [Wendy] just being like, “She's laughing, she's laughing,” it's so heartbreaking to hear. She's telling this mother who, maybe she's still in shock, they’re trying to get on with their lives, they seem fine. And it just shatters this stability, and she faints. She's told something so earth-shattering that she faints, and there's that beautiful liquid montage of everything on the table pouring out.
Roeg also takes a much more subdued approach to the dynamic between Sutherland and Christie’s characters than what you might expect from a filmmaker today, allowing for some differences in interpretation about their relationship even between Bennett and Brooks.
Emily Bennett: Honestly, I feel like if this were being made in modern day, we would get agonizingly long scenes of crying and pill taking, wringing of hands and holding each other. But I honestly love how much they're trying to maintain their lives. He's got a great job, they're in a beautiful city, and I appreciate that we don't get these agonizing scenes. Honestly, the sex scene is one of the saddest scenes to me. It almost seems desperate. Perhaps in a filmmaking sense, maybe it was, “Let's get eyes on the screen, get people to watch this long sex scene.” But at the same time their performance of it, it's this kind of desperate clinging to each other. And it's so long, and it's interspersed with them just getting dressed. It's a very normal thing, it doesn't have a sexy soundtrack. They're going through these motions of buttoning and unbuttoning, and it all feels kind of the same. I don't know, there is grief in the mundane.
Justin Brooks: I actually read it a little differently. I actually read them as being steady despite these little erosions here and there… I saw it as even after the sex scene, there were these little moments where Donald Sutherland walks past his wife and just kind of peeks. He just looks in and admires his wife getting dressed. For me, it was more interesting that it kind of fed into the end for me. [Their relationship was] the only light he really had, that's the light he should have been running towards. But despite that relationship, he kept choosing his death. And then by the very end when they are running through Venice, it almost looks like purgatory. There's nobody around, it's these empty streets, these twisting ways, and the only other person you see on the streets is her. And she keeps calling to him, and he keeps running forward towards death.
In addition to stellar performances from Sutherland and Christie, what makes the tragedy of the story so effective is in how Roeg, along with editor Graeme Clifford, structure the film in an unorthodox manner and non-linear framing that disorients the viewer as much as the characters.
Justin Brooks: As a filmmaker, it's so fun to watch this because you realize that the filmmaker has literally put the audience behind the eyes of Donald Sutherland. Because as he's making all the wrong choices, so are you as an audience member. I want him to catch up to the girl in the red coat. You're making the same mistakes he is at the beginning of the film. You think he had a premonition of his dead daughter and then you realize, “Oh no it's something else.” It's great that the filmmaker confuses you in the exact same way that his character is, so when it happens to him, it happens to you, too. And you realize that you, too, have just ran to your own demise in this film.
Bennett and Brooks were so impressed with the craft in this film, that they took a pretty humble approach when asked if they would ever consider remaking it if given the opportunity.
Justin Brooks: I actually was thinking about this while we were watching it. I don't think so. I don't think this story could have been told differently. The only thing that you can do with this is to make it a different movie. The only way I would remake it is if I took its themes and its central idea and made it an entirely different movie. This is a film of its time, for sure. There are things in this movie that I think only live in that time capsule. And I would also be so bloody terrified of the craft in this film, because like I said, we can only hope that we are as careful and thoughtful in our own filmmaking as films like this.
Emily Bennett: I think this film, if it were to be remade, I should not make it right now. I think the only person who could remake this film is Lynne Ramsay, who did We Need to Talk About Kevin, You Were Never Really Here, and Morvern Callar. She's one of my favorite directors, and her editing style is very similar to this movie. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton, watch the editing in the memories she has. It's about a mother in the aftermath of a Columbine-style shooting, which has already happened, but we revisit it because she is a woman alone, grieving about how she raised this child and wondering if it’s her fault. And so her memories fall onto each other. She puts her head in a sink of water and the water ripples so much that when the eyes open you realize it's not her face anymore, it's her son’s. And it's those moments that honestly time just doesn't exist, and she's lost in this loop of guilt and regret. She is kind of chasing him in a way, so I think if Don't Look Now were to be remade, the only person right now who could make this is Lynne Ramsay.
Justin Brooks: It's funny because the question is not, “Can you really make this?” The question is, “Can you also find an editor that can walk the line like that editor did?” Can you find two actors that are gonna be so f*cking charismatic with one another? There is more than one person that made this film special. I can say if you asked me, “Could you remake Friday the 13th?” I'd say, “I love that movie, I have so much care for that movie. But I think it's a simpler film to remake.” Whereas this has so many parts that I would say it's hard to ask the question, “Can one filmmaker remake this?” No, because that one filmmaker is going to have to find the editor, the actors, the lighting, the location. It's more than just deciding, “Can you find a way into this story?”
Ultimately, while Brooks and Bennett wouldn’t attempt remaking Don’t Look Now at this point in their careers, they do see it as an invaluable resource for new generations of filmmakers looking to make a unique mark on the genre.
Emily Bennett: And this is a mature film, and I don't mean that in terms of… well you know there is that sex scene [laughs], but it is an emotionally mature film. And if you show this to a general audience, like a general horror audience, they're going to be bored out of their minds, and I don't blame them. This film is shades of gray—it's not black, white, and red splashed all over. It's a really nuanced film that I think continues to feed us, so does it need to be remade? I don't think so. But I think we as the new generation of filmmakers can learn a lot from this film and learn a lot from the trust that [Roeg] had in the editor, who is really the shining artist in this entire piece.
Justin Brooks: This is a movie I had seen at around the same time as seeing Invasion of the Body Snatchers… And it's a great film, such a great movie, but a very different movie. And I guess as an educational film, I don't think Body Snatchers offers as much as this movie does. As a piece of entertainment, that's the one I wanna watch, but as something that I wanna pick and borrow from and hide things away, this is the film for sure. I think it's a mature film and it takes time for you to understand why it’s a movie worth watching.