Languid, morose, unsettling psychological nightmare, punctuated by some startling violence. Mondo Macabro has released on Blu-ray SYMPTOMS, the “lost” 1974 U.K. horror cult outing from Spanish director Jose Ramon Larraz, starring Angela Pleasence, Lorna Heilbron, Peter Vaughan, Raymond Huntley, Marie-Paule Mailleux, and Mike Grady. Virtually unseen (except for fuzzy bootleg copies) since its surprise Cannes Film Festival entry back in ‘74, SYMPTOMS has gained a small but devoted following due in no small part to its troubled reception and subsequent obscurity. Fortunately in this case, the actual movie lives up to its hype: SYMPTOMS is a beautiful, haunting little psychological (or is it supernatural...?) chiller, aided immeasurably by Larraz’s indolent, eerie gothic atmosphere, the on-point cast, and some brief but shocking violence. Along with the British Film Institute’s 2K restoration of the 1.37:1 negative, transferred at that ratio here (more about that below), Mondo has included several extras (also from the BFI release), including a couple of documentaries on Larraz, interviews with the two lead actresses and the movie’s editor, and an original trailer.
Wealthy young woman Helen (Angela Pleasence, THE GODSEND, HITLER: THE LAST TEN DAYS) has returned to England from Switzerland where she had been “convalescing” from some unstated malady. Arriving at her isolated country manor, she has brought along a friend, pretty Anne (Lorna Heilbron, THE CREEPING FLESH, THE UNINVITED), who has agreed to stay with Helen for a few weeks. Anne has recently broken with her boyfriend, John (Ronald O’Neil), and bit of country leisure with her close friend Helen is just what she needs. However, Anne soon finds out that a rural vacation with strange, haunted Helen may not be quite so idyllic as she imagined, particularly after rough, gruff handyman Brady (Peter Vaughan, THE NAKED RUNNER, STRAW DOGS) tells Anne that Helen has a habit of inviting friends to stay with her, like the sultry brunette Cora (Marie-Paule Mailleux, BRIGADE ANTI-SEX)—friends who sometimes disappear. Soon, Anne is hearing strange sounds and moans coming from various rooms, including Helen’s, while Helen is hearing voices coming from the attic...as well as seeing the mysterious Cora stalking around the house. And all the while, Brady rows slowly through the adjacent lake, looking for something...while somehow missing the dead body that floats in the weeds.
To be honest, I had never heard of SYMPTOMS prior to this Mondo Macabro disc being assigned to me, while my only experience with director Jose Ramon Larraz’s work was seeing 1974’s VAMPYRES years and years ago (under its DAUGHTERS OF DRACULA moniker) at a drive-in, and then again more recently when it was restored on Blu. If I was expecting the same kind of over-the-top gore and sex that marked that energetic exploiter, I was almost immediately dispelled of that notion, as SYMPTOMS unfolded slowly and elegantly, taking its time to create an increasingly palpable atmosphere of decaying, gothic madness. The solo theatrical producing effort of the Belgian publisher of "The Smurfs" comics, Jean L. Dupuis, low-budgeted U.K. horror effort SYMPTOMS, directed by visiting Spanish director and former cartoonist Larraz, somehow got the attention of the right people and became one of England’s official in-competition entries for the 1974 Cannes Film Festival (along with Ken Russell’s MAHLER). Accounts vary (including different stories from the director), but apparently many English critics and directors were unhappy that a B horror movie directed by a “foreigner” was representing England in the competition, and they made their feelings known. Combine that with Larraz’s own admitted distaste for the “movie game” and the necessity of promoting his work (he stated he would have preferred working alone on his comics), and perhaps it’s not so surprising that when SYMPTOMS failed to win much notice at the competition (many compared it unfavorably to Roman Polanski’s earlier REPULSION, which it certainly resembled in some ways), it effectively vanished. The movie’s editor, Brian Smedley-Aston, recalls that SYMPTOMS had no subsequent general release in the U.K. or anywhere else, and that it only played at a few houses a full two years later, and then once on U.K. television, before prints and the negative were thought to be lost for good (inferior quality VHS bootlegs were available, though). Only a concerted effort by the British Film Institute, with their 2010 “Most Wanted” rescue and restoration project of hunting down missing titles worthy of rediscovery, eventually saved SYMPTOMS (some reports say the negative was located, other say a print—which could be key to the aspect ratio on this disc. See below).
Not knowing exactly what to expect from SYMPTOMS, I thought perhaps we were first headed into familiar, comfortable Hammer gothic territory when I saw those strange opening flashbacks (or flashforwards? Or just plain imaginings of Helen’s?) of always-welcome U.K. character actor Peter Vaughan as a horny handyman, manhandling sultry Marie-Paule Mailleux, right before we’re shown a glimpse of a nude body in a small, overgrown lake. But very quickly, one realizes director Larraz and his cameraman Trevor Wrenn are going for the opposite of Hammer’s more conventional, glamorous, color-soaked house style. Larraz’s England is far from “cozy” or “romantic” in the traditional aesthetic sense—this is an isolated, moldering, eerily quiet England that would quickly creep anyone out. Helen’s remote country estate looks damp and chilly and devoid of any bright colors, surrounded by fetid overgrowth that’s gloomy under perpetually drizzly, gray skies. Atmosphere and mood is everything in SYMPTOMS, and Larraz’s marshaling and command of the naturalistic sights and sounds of this dreamy yet increasingly oppressive environment is masterful.
And within SYMPTOMS’s carefully modulated ambiance lies a psychological shocker that’s not particularly hard to anticipate, but one that becomes more and more genuinely frightening as director Larraz tightens the screws. In the first shots of the movie, Larraz, with co-scripter Stanley Miller (U.K. TV series like THE SOMERSET MAUGHAM HOUR and RICHARD THE LIONHEARTED), from a story by Thomas Owen, pretty much gives us the “solution,” if you will, to SYMPTOMS...if you look at it strictly as a psychological thriller (certainly nothing wrong doing that). However, Larraz’s construction, both thematically and visually, is so deliberately non-explicit, if we choose to reject a linear narrative solution, and just let the movie operate as a jumbled dream, we can’t tell for certain what exactly is “real” or imagined here, what’s happening in Helen’s mind or perhaps in her soul, or if her demons are mentally based...or supernaturally manifested. That time-shifted opening scene of Vaughan and Mailleux, followed by Helen writing a typically creepy letter to...whom (“Last night I dreamt that they had returned. They were here again just like in other dreams but this time so confused. I have a feeling that something is about to happen. Something final in which I will be involved,”), could set up the movie’s own reality eight different ways from Sunday: a disturbed young woman imagining an illicit affair between her handyman and her friend/lover/would-be lover; a disturbed young women beset by malcontent ghosts and spirits (like James’ The Turn of the Screw); even a disturbed or normal young woman writing a fictional story of eroticized mayhem (a letter-writing framework was frequently employed for gothic storytelling, to lend an air of manufactured authenticity for the reader). Larraz refuses to spell anything out: we don’t know why Helen was hospitalized in Switzerland; we don’t have any background on Helen, such as how she obtained that fabulous manor house; we don’t know how Helen meets all these women; we don’t know if they’re her lovers or just actors in her fantasies. We don’t know if she met Anne 10 years ago or 10 months ago. And we’re not really sure if any of the other characters in the movie even exist outside of her imagination. It’s all guesswork, if you choose to see it that way.
That fractured, untrustworthy narrative may sound overly “arty” and tricky, but in Larraz’s hands, SYMPTOMS comes over at first as a strange dream, before things get increasingly weird, with repeated imagery and increased violence turning it into a disconcerting waking nightmare we can’t escape. How could Vaughan, the handyman and gameskeeper who lives on the property, not possibly see that naked body at the edges of that small lake—a pond, really? Is he really going out several times to look for it...or are we just getting "repeat" flashbacks? Larraz shows this scene happening again and again, as Vaughan searches for what’s right in front of him. Other scenes repeat constantly, such as Helen laying in bed, staring at the attic steps, listening intently to the voices she hears (in there, or in her head?), or characters staring out their windows, watching the rain. We don’t know anything about these people and yet we “know” them like we instantly know a stranger in a dream, because our brains simply tell us we do. And like a dream, Larraz just keeps repeating scene after scene like a loop...until it’s time to start killing people. Had Larraz had Jean Seberg, his first pick of actors for Helen (Pleasence states Seberg couldn’t get union permission to shoot in England), we might have had a much longer time to wonder if Helen was an innocent victim or somehow disturbed. As it is, Pleasence’s decidedly disquieting staring pretty much puts Helen at level “10” right out of the gate. Larraz can merely put an extreme close-up of her watching the lovely Heilbron undress, to give us a pause. His shock effects are quite minimal (Cora’s face in the black window will make you jump), but even throwaway moments are designed to increase the tension (just watch how clever he is in blocking the simple action of Helen taking a knife over to the kitchen table—you’re sure she’s going to stick it in Anne). Larraz’s own hand-held camerawork for Anne’s P.O.V. shots in the dark attic feel quite modern, while his stabbing deaths are models of fierce, realistic, and scary blocking and camerawork (even more disturbing by contrast are those repeated static shots of someone’s corpse just...sitting around). By the time SYMPTOMS comes to what many reviewers claim is a satisfying conclusion, the more adventurous viewer might feel that the two ends of Larraz’s loopy, terrifying nightmare have merely just come together.
I have no reason to doubt everyone's insistence that this was originally intended to be shown at 1.37:1...except for that one shot of someone looking through binoculars. Now, I don't know about you, but I've never seen a matted binocular shot where the sides of the rounded circles are cut off, as they are here. You always> get the full double circle effect, with the fuzzy black area fully surrounding them, right? Well, maybe Larraz didn't want that, and so he chopped them on the sides, but if I had to guess...I'd say this was a fullscreen print (not an open matte) that was found and restored. Still...everybody else says different. That aside, this 2k dual layer 1080p HD high bit rate Blu transfer here is beyond solid: impressive fine image detail, muted but correct color valuing, extremely tight grain structure, and nicely modulated contrast. The mono PCM English audio soundtrack is super-clean if necessarily uneventful, considering the director's frequent long passages of silence. English subtitles are included.
Extras for this release include the 2011 documentary, "On Vampyres and Other Symptoms" (1:13:52), from Celia Novis (for some reason, we also get a text bio on this obscure filmmaker). Lots of filler here, including elementary school stuff like reading Larraz's scripts over the soundtrack (someone walking around a spooky mansion) while showing Larraz walking down a hotel corridor. Amateur night in Dixie, although it's hilarious to watch the director adamantly refuse to watch his own movie ("It's enough making them, I don't want to watch them!") to the bewildered consternation of some film festival organizer (what's not hilarious but rather downright embarrassing is when Novis has the VAMPYRES stars recreate their celebrated movie run...through the hotel. Cripes). Much better is 1999's episode of the U.K. series, "Eurotika!", featuring Larraz: "From Barcelona to Tunbridge Wells: The Films of José Larraz". It runs 24:01, and features the director, producer/editor Brian Smedly-Aston, and sexy Marianne Morris discussing mostly VAMPYRES. It's an interesting look at the director, but it has very little to do with SYMPTOMS. Three new interviews are also included. Angela Pleasance (9:37) relates some great stories about the filming (a heavy light bounced off her "perfectly rounded head," causing little damage), as well as a nuanced take on the director (dictatorial control freak, basically). Lorna Heilbron (17:57) goes into more detail about her own acting background, as well as the production of SYMPTOMS, describing Larraz in a much kinder fashion (I think she found him rather charming and attractive). She also briefly discusses her other roles like THE CREEPING FLESH (which is criminally overdue on Blu-ray), as well as detailing why she got out of the biz. Editor Brian Smedly-Aston (17:04) gives more background on his career prior to SYMPTOMS than the actual shoot, but he has some fascinating takes on Larraz, identifying his deliberately chosen "outsider" status as the reason Larraz didn't become a more famous, mainstream director (he also mentions his editing time on Jeff Leiberman's SQUIRM and BLUE SUNSHINE). Finally, an original trailer is included (The “Red Box Limited Edition” Blu-ray edition of SYMPTOMS, available through Mondo Macabro’s website, includes a bonus DVD featuring a two-hour archival interview with the late Larraz, as well as an exclusive booklet). (Paul Mavis)
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