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Finding Inspiration in Horror Movies with Adriana Chartrand

Finding Inspiration in Horror Movies with Adriana Chartrand

A photo of author Adriana Chartrand on a purple background.

Post by Adriana Chartrand, author of An Ordinary Violence.

Inspiration for my writing often comes from the films that I love. Don’t Look Now (1973) is one such film, and one that inspired several elements in my debut horror novel An Ordinary Violence. There is sometimes debate as to whether Don’t Look Now should be classified as a horror film, but the more salient question would be what type of horror film it is: an impressionistic one, concerned more with illuminating the experience of its characters than creating a memorable slasher-villain (this isn’t a dig, I like both kinds). The film, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, inspired An Ordinary Violence in several ways, notably for its exploration of the aftermath of a terrible event—an accident in the movie and a killing in the book. The book was also inspired by the movie’s ability to meaningfully externalize horrific human experiences and emotions, and in its crafting of an environment that blends psychological distress with the “real” world, asking us to question how we view that reality, from within and from outside.  


Based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, the plot uses fairly standard ghost story building blocks to produce a very not-standard film. Sutherland and Christie play John and Laura Baxter, a married couple whose young child dies in an accidental drowning. Soon after the accident they travel to Venice, where John has been commissioned to restore an old church. They meet two sisters, one a clairvoyant who tells Laura she can see the spirit of their daughter Christine, and she is happy and laughing. While Laura is immediately consoled by this information, a dubious John soon begins to experience mysterious and unsettling sightings. A brilliantly acted slow burn with a truly memorable descent and a shocking ending, the film is a searing and frightening exploration of grief and loss. It meticulously builds to the nightmarish hellscape that Venice eventually becomes for John, allowing the familiar to slowly yet inexorably turn strange. I built a similar atmosphere for Dawn in An Ordinary Violence, one that blends internal and outer landscapes, with some spiritual or other-worldly interference as well.

The familiar becoming a nightmare is, of course, an apt description of living after a cataclysmic event like losing a child. Daily life, having to keep on living seemingly normally, can seem like a terrible trap, a waking nightmare to be endured. Even further, the Baxters leave their original familiar—their home—and go to Venice for an extended stay. But they cannot leave behind their loss, thus transposed onto the city of Venice. This transposition is everywhere in the built environment around them; it transforms even that. After the extended sex scene you didn’t know you needed, Laura and John leave their hotel, heading for the evening and walk through a lobby where the furniture has been pushed to one side and covered in white sheets. They are draped. Shrouded. As though death now, inexorably, awaits; they can only stave it off for a time. I also conveyed a similar sense of fruitless running, with Dawn’s move to Toronto and subsequent return home, that fails to solve her life’s problems.

The film is a masterclass of impressionistic lighting, colour palette, angles, imagery, and sound. Donald Sutherland’s face and expressions, in particular his eyes, express an absurd amount of emotional depth, as when he looks up from a photograph at the beginning and seems to see something devastating on an invisible horizon. It is not a subtle film but it somehow manages not to veer comically over the top. From the opening scene, images are being projected and blurred, glass is shattered, a pond reflects a little girl running, seen upside down. Perception is manipulated and shifted; it cannot be trusted, perhaps especially through a lens as powerful as grief. How we may alter our own perceptions, and how our perceptions may alter reality, are deeply intriguing questions for me in my own work—ones that I interrogate throughout An Ordinary Violence on both the personal and societal levels, particularly as they relate to being a contemporary Indigenous person in a colonial country.

The film offers few if any neat explanations, allowing the viewer to sit in the possibilities, to reflect. An scene of Laura and John walking outside and arguing cuts to the two sisters holding up a framed photograph in their apartment and both laughing heartily, slightly menacingly. Of course, we wonder, at what? But we aren’t told. An opening scene that begins idyllic—a little girl running in a large back yard, lovely music tinkling—becomes so intimately raw in its tragedy that it’s difficult to watch. John’s guttural moans as he struggles to walk with the body of his daughter, clutching her to him, and the horrible look in his eyes, mount awful tension to Laura, who is obliviously on the phone inside, seeing what has happened; she screams, and the film cuts away. The film has a remarkable ability to capture true emotions across a broad spectrum, something aspirational for my own work. When the figure in the red coat turns at the end and John realizes it is not his daughter Christine, he says, “Wait, wait”—he realizes, too late, that he has perceived wrong. Did he seal his own fate, in a way? How is it that he sees Laura on the boat, dressed for his own funeral, before it’s come to pass? These types of metaphysical or spiritual questions of perception, reality, and knowledge are interwoven throughout An Ordinary Violence in several ways, including Dawn’s communications with her deceased mother and her seeing the big jackrabbit, whose appearances are ambivalent and mysterious—it’s precise meaning and workings are not known, to Dawn or to us. 

Don’t Look Now has one of my favourite endings in film, and I resist writing about “the montage” here if only to preserve the impact of a first-time viewing. I love too that the ending creates as many questions as it may answer, as I’m drawn to endings that don’t wrap everything up too neatly, that can be interpreted in more than one way, or offer more than one possibility for what may happen next. The ending of An Ordinary Violence operates in this same space, leaving room for the reader to imagine and interpret, rather than dictating exactly what has come to pass.

The result of many talents and some mysterious alchemy, Don’t Look Now is an incredibly rich text that offers something new to contemplate, every time one looks at it.

Learn more about Adriana Chartrand's novel An Ordinary Violence

The cover image of An Ordinary Violence.


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