Director: Josḗ Larraz
Script: Joseph Larraz, Stanley Miller
Cast: Angela Pleasence, Peter Vaughan, Lorna Heilbron, Nancy Nevinson, Ronald O’ Neil, Marie-Paul Mailleux, Michael Grady, Raymond Huntley
Running time: 88 minutes
Symptoms was long thought of as being a lost film with no one quite knowing where an original negative could be located. Fortunately a vaults manager at Deluxe contacted the British Film Institute (BFI) to say the negative was there, hence this newly remastered re-release by the Institute.
Funnily enough I’d managed to purloin a dodgy enth generation copy of the film not that long ago, and had seen it, but fancied watching a proper copy, hence my enthusiasm for checking out the BFI’s new release. The picture and sound quality here are very good, considering the age and type of film in question.
The story of Symptoms is a very simple one: a young woman, Anne (Heilbron) is invited to join a female friend, Helen (Pleasence), at her family’s remote country estate, to escape the fast-paced life of the city for a little while. At first everything is tickety-boo and the two women get on extremely well, and sit around drinking wine, chatting, walking in the woods and going boating on a nearby lake. But the longer Anne stays with Helen the more she senses that something is wrong with her rather elven-like hostess, and it’s not long before some of Helen’s skeletons begin to grimly emerge from the closet (or should that be attic), literally.
Symptoms is basically a psychological horror film set amongst some quite beautifully sinister English landscape, and within an impressive country home that soon becomes an additional character in the movie. It’s rather easy to compare Larraz’s Symptoms to Polanski’s better known Repulsion, due to the fact that both films are about young women demonstrating ‘symptoms’ of mental breakdown, but Larraz’s later film is very much its own kind of monster. Plus it features an excellent, but relatively small part for the fantastic Peter Vaughan as Helen’s imposing grounds man, and sometime stalker, Brady.
More of a mood piece Symptoms is slow paced, but because of its interesting central characters it still manages to hold the viewer’s attention. The film demonstrates that Larraz is just as capable of capturing the suitable nuances of characters as he is the leafy Englishness of the countryside that surrounds them. And this is all nicely underpinned and tied together by John Scott’s subtly melancholic and mysterious score.
The two main actresses are very good, Pleasence in particular, although Peter Vaughan tends to steal every scene he’s in with his distinctive looks and quite sinister mannerisms. And, this being a horror film, the murders are quite vicious and brutal, with the knife attacks being particularly effective.
As mentioned earlier the old decaying country pile in which our anti-heroine resides is a great location, and is particularly creepy when the storms pass over it toward the end, seemingly mirroring Helen’s own stormy and unpredictable mental state.
While probably not as wildly entertaining or as memorable as Larraz’s later, most famous film, Vampyres, Symptoms is still a very watchable, and comes across as a rather thoughtful blast of psycho thriller in the tradition of Repulsion and Paranoiac.
The British Film Institute are distributing Symptoms on DVD and Blu-ray. As per usual the package includes a great range of special features including:
A trailer (2 mins), which tends to emphasise ‘the mysteries of the lake’!
An interview with Angela Pleasence (9 mins) where the actress reveals that the filmmakers originally had wanted actress Jean Seberg for her role, and that she found Larraz to be quite an aggressive director to work with, so there was a fair bit of friction between them.
An interview with Lorna Heilbron (17 mins) where Lorna talks about how she found the director (she liked him more than Angela did it seems) and how she’s now good friends with her co-star, and she also talks about how she loved working with Peter Cushing on The Creeping Flesh.
An interview with Brian Smedley-Aston (16 mins) where the producer of Symptoms talks about his career, about the film’s production and about its later screening at Cannes, where it won an award.
On Vampyres and other Symptoms (71 mins) – a documentary by Celia Novis, which uses plenty of footage of Larraz’s trip to the Stiges Film Festival to receive an award, and with the man himself reminiscing about his career and about his most well-known films. The documentary also utilises cartoon footage to interesting effect to help bring Larraz’s artistic history to life.
From Barcelona… To Tunbridge Wells: The films of José Larraz (24 mins) – An episode from the sadly short-lived Eurotika! television series, which used to examine various, more obscure film directors and genres each week. It reveals some interesting insights into what Larraz now thinks of his own films – he thinks Vampyres is too bloody, for example – and it gives a potted history of his career in films and, to a lesser extent, as a top drawer comic book artist.
A BFI produced booklet about Symptoms – the usual high quality literature to accompany the film; very informative and well written.