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Spanish director Jose Ramon Larraz will always been best known for Vampyres, his 1974 lesbian vampire opus; that same year he directed two other feature films, The House That Vanished and Symptoms. Whilst both titles eventually disappeared, psychological thriller Symptoms has been ressurrected by the British Film Institute and makes it's way into high-definition.

Dealing with the ghosts of Christmas past.

Helen Ramsay (Angela Pleasance), has returned to her countryside childhood home after being away in Europe for several years. She has invited her friend, Anne, (Lorna Heilbron) to join her, but this tranquil trip soon descends into a nightmare as the pair attract the unwanted attention of Brady (Peter Vaughn), the estate's mysterious grounds-keeper, who seems to know a lot about events that have been going on at the secluded country house...

Opening with some very picturesque shots of the English countryside, Symptoms seems determined to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, as shots of a young woman being defiled instantly shatter that idyllic image and soon as the viewer wondering how these shots, at odds with everything that immediately came before and after it and presenting a striking contrast between the beauty of mother nature and the ugliness of human nature. These disconcerting images of the other side of the rural romanticism coin also stimulate the viewer into wondering if they have already occurred, if they are a glimpse into what will occur, or if they are even just idle daydreams of the central character, Helen.

Symptoms is a film that plays with the audience, much in the same manner that a cat will sadistically toy with a mouse, just before delivering the fatal blow that sends it scurrying off to the rodent afterlife. The viewer initially sees a film about the loss of childhood innocence, as Angela returns home and is seemingly confronted by the brutality of growing up and how sad it can be when you realise that things have changed simply through experiencing life.

Angela Pleasance's physical appearance contributes greatly to the otherworldly atmosphere of the film; she always has – rather unnervingly – looked a great deal like her Thespian father, Donald Pleasance, and her big wide eyes (looking not unlike a Walter/Margaret Keane painting) project a childlike innocence that effortlessly wins over an audience into thinking that she is a fragile flower, augmenting the character's sense of childlike innocence. Pleasance's out-of-step, insular delivery of her dialogue is at first baffling, but becomes increasingly unnerving as the events unfold, until the true nature of Helen is revealed and the extent of just HOW masterful Pleasance's performance is becomes clear.

Peter Vaughn is an actor who will always be associated with playing ne'er-do-wells and other sinister characters; whilst there is usually a strong element of this to many of the parts he has played during his long and distinguished career, Vaughn always seems to find something interesting buried in the writing and brings it to the fore, resulting in a character that transcends mere villainy and much less two-dimensional than it would appear on the page. Vaughn's performance as the mercurial Brady is no exception, as he keeps the viewer guessing as to his motivations and intent, making him seem like a sexual predator, a potential murderer, a sentinel and a mercenary all through the course of the film. When he is first seen properly, he is wearing a white vest  and is chopping wood out in the forest; he leers at Anne in a manner that is a little more than merely suggestive, all whilst holding his chopper in his hands. Most other actors would have milked this scene for all it's worth, but Vaughn underplays it, only adding to the sense of mystery, menace and – perhaps most interestingly – a degree of concern. There is a scene early on where Brady encounters Helen and both of them know something, but neither of them want to say anything, allowing their eyes and to do the talking – it's a beautiful scene where both Pleasance and Vaughn play off each other wonderfully and really help to sell the idea that there is past history between them, but it might not be of the most obvious variety.

"TROTSKY!!!!"

Helen's sexuality is addressed a little during the film; at first it is assumed that Helen is heterosexual, but as the film progresses, she clumsily and awkwardly kisses Anne, leaving Anne somewhat baffled, but from this moment it becomes clear that Helen is effectively a child, experimenting with her sexuality in a tentative, ham-fisted manner reserved for playing Postman's Knock or Spin the Bottle. The kiss with Anne is the first real indicator – or, ahem, symptom - of Helen's true psychological make-up and just how far-reaching the implications of her arrested development will be. The fact that Helen happily throws male paper dollies into the fire and states that she likes to see them burn is another serious red flag and should have made Anne want to run for the hills – or at least the relative safety of an urban locale...

There are times during the film, particularly in the earlier half, where the viewer gets the feeling that the secluded setting and the surrounding village is some sort of purpose-built playground for Helen and that all of the people populating it are aware of her history and are there to act as wardens. The local pharmacist seems especially concerned after quizzing Helen about her return home and the talk of Helen suffering from headaches only fuels the genial chemist's worries – the look on his face is the first real indicator that everything may not be well upstairs with Helen. Brady also seems to know something pertinent to Helen's past and alludes to things in a vaguely threatening manner as he lurks around the grounds, acting like some sort of keeper.

Spanish director Jose Ramon Larraz, along with his cinematographer Trevor Wrenn, paints an absolutely stunning picture of the English countryside, with fabulously golden colours and copious amounts of lens flare. The scenes with Helen and Anne drifting down the woodland stream are breathtakingly sumptuous and have a dreamlike quality to them – or at least they have that look of a Harmony hairspray or Impulsive body spray commercial from the era.

There are those who would say that this film draws heavily on Roman Polanski's classic psychological drama, Repulsion; whilst it's hard to deny that there aren't SOME similarities (the mentally unbalanced state of the central female character, the and her sense of childlike retardation that ultimately leads to death, amongst spoilery others), but Symptoms tackles the subject matter from another angle, in the instead of the urban setting (which seemed to suggest that the urbanisation was a contributing factor to the breakdown of that film's protagonist). It is not a full-on horror film, but more the depiction of a seriously disturbed person with some of the standard tropes and elements of the horror genre thrown in for good measure.

"Maybe nobody knows how to stop him..."

Larraz tips the audience a subtle wink to the extent of Helen's mental health issues fairly early on, when Helen picks up a large knife from the kitchen worktop and walks over to a loaf of bread and proceeds to cut a slice from it; Larraz focuses on the knife during that brief shot, not in an almost pornographic manner, but lingering just long enough to make the viewer start to wonder about the significance of the knife. The director also cleverly incorporates what are almost subliminal shots of a young woman, appearing in reflections – this causes the viewer to wonder just WHO the woman is; is she an alter-ego of Helen? Is she a paranormal apparition? Or is she something else that only Helen can see?

Helen is clearly a someone who has never come to terms with leaving childhood behind and become an adult; whilst it is true that nobody ever completely puts away childish things, the form of infantile regression/retardation that Helen has is quite pronounced. Her childlike nature is on display when she is seen clutching her teddy bear and when Anne secretly ventures upstairs into the darkened attic, the full extent her of her disturbed character is revealed, as Anne finds herself amongst all of Helen's childhood paraphernalia, which can be seen as a metaphor for Helen's state of mind – a dark, jumbled mess of childish things and those who venture uninvited into such a place  pay a heavy price. There is a quiet scene where Helen is staring at a corpse, looking at it with a palpable degree of childlike wonder, scrutinising it in a manner not too dissimilar to the way that a child looks into the eyes of a doll they love – it's a small moment but beautifully performed and shot and for the first time, the viewer can see the true extent of how disturbed this young woman is.

Whilst comparisons to Polanski's Repulsion are fair enough, with the basic concept being similar, but going in another direction, there is a sequence that cannot be seen as anything but ripping off another classic suspense thriller – Psycho. Larraz's film contains a sequence that has the boyfriend of Anne visiting the country house, wondering why contact has broken off; he finds himself wandering about the seemingly deserted house, with the tension mounting steadily – and before you can say “Arbogast” he meets his maker in a suitably violent fashion (complete with shrill, repeated note motif) just after making it up the darkened stairway. The blatant ripping off of Hitch's masterpiece is about the only serious strike against the film has up until then, it was doing a fabulous job of depicting the fragility of the human psyche and didn't need to pinch from elsewhere.

The final confrontation between Brady and Helen sees the disturbed young woman finally wearing make-up, but in a manner that seems more like a six-year old who has raided her mother's make-up bag. This seems to signify that Helen's antics are coming to an end and she is fully aware that her protracted childhood is over and she is trying to be an adult, even though she appears to be mentally incapable of being one.

"They threatened to bring in Tony Steedman if I asked for more money!"

Video


Long considered a “lost” film, those sterling people at the British Film Institute were able to locate the original negatives. After years of substandard bootleg copies, this will come as a breath of fresh air to fans.

Presented – rather curiously - in 1.33:1, the image is most impressive for a film that was deemed lost. There is a healthy amount of grain present and the encoding (averaging around 34mps) renders this natural grain in a pleasing manner. The colour pallet, which consists mainly of late summer/early autumn browns and yellow, combined with the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, gives it the look and feel of a TV movie from the period, but the sterling transfer here elevates it far beyond those conventions.

Audio


Presented in PCM mono 1.0, the audio is serviceable enough, with clear dialogue and there are moment of low frequencies that can surprise, especially with the odd rumble of thunder and the impact of a stabbing knife.

Extras


An Interview with Angela Pleasance: OK, let’s get this out of the way. She’s always been an unusual-looking woman, with shades of her father, but advancing years have seen almost metamorphosise into the former Halloween star, which is deeply cool. There are many tales told in this relaxed interview, including how a studio light fell on her head and sent her to hospital, where she explains that the only reason she survived the incident was because - as the attending brain-surgeon told her – she has a completely round head, allowing the light to bounce off without any permanent damage.   “We didn’t do litigation back then,” she states. We discover that Peter Vaughn: “…was my surrogate dad.  He was my dad's best friend, and they communicated – as far as I can remember – entirely in cricket terms”. She is candid about the nudity in the film, happy to declare that: it wasn’t her whipping off her top:   “Anyone who knows me knows they couldn't possibly be my tits. If only they were...” She really has her reservations about Larraz as a person, recounting instances where he exerted his need to control everything, including drenching her with a fire-hose, to the point to knocking her down with it, and that the character motivations of co-star Marie-Paule Mailleux (who happened to be his girlfriend at the time) were deliberately withheld from her, so as to take power away from Pleasance and give it to him. Apart from such problems, things end happily, as we find that not only did she form a lasting bind with fellow star Helibron, but also that in preparation for this particular interview, Pleasance was afforded her first viewing of Symptoms, and she’s pretty pleased with the results.

An Interview with Lorna Heilbron: Sitting down with the delightful actress for a chat brings not only a wealth of nuggets about the movie in question, but also regarding the business, life in general and Helibron herself - “I was more in love with the idea of being an actress than actually being an actress,” she admits, but such blithe notions blossomed into a pretty decent career, before losing her passion for the business and becoming a qualified and successful psychotherapist.

Her feelings towards Larraz are similar to those of Pleasance, but you are left with the impression he treated Heilbron a little better than her co-star, “The word that comes up for me is intense,” she tactfully states, “There was a huge amount of aliveness and dynamism. He was not a laid-back person, as you probably know!” That she sided with producer Smedley-Aston in revelling in the Cannes atmosphere when promoting in Cannes - the exact opposite of the director - further suggests that she probably got on worse with Larraz than she is prepared to discuss. It’s almost cute than Heilbron herself was so swept up in the festival atmosphere that she wasn’t properly taking in just how mind-blowing the whole experience was, being more concerned with what she was going to wear!

She covers a lot of ground, waxing lyrical on the nature of “evil”, both in the movie how such things relate to her personal philosophies, and making time to clear up any mystery as to why she dropped out of the business and studied for a straight job.  In this case, it was when she just lost her passion for acting instead turned to psychotherapy, surely a profession where the ability to fake emotion and sincerity account for a good chunk of the work. If you’re bereaved or the ol’ marriage is on the rocks in Putney, seek her out!

Best of all is her experiences regarding The Creeping Flesh, where she describes Peter Cushing as “…a true delight,” a recalls how the recently bereaved star took her under his wing like a treated her surrogate daughter, as though the incarnation of his recently late wife. All this and the embarrassment caused when her daughter and her friends gathered for a sleepover and caught a screening of The Creeping Flesh, where a certain risqué sequence had toes curling!

"Must go - meeting with the rest of the Fircombe Women's Lib".

An Interview with Brian Smedley-Aston: One of Britain’s most diverse people in film, he’s worked in just about every department, from directing to producing, writing and his first, great strength: editing.  Here he chats about how he got into the business through the advice of getting experience in the cutting room before venturing into film-making, his relationship with celebrated director Donald Cammell and his experiences of the legendary Jagger movie Performance. The subject of working with Jose Larraz is well-represented, where he states that: “…he was the boss. I don't think the actors were particularly happy with that, but he always got what he wanted.”

Symptoms gets its time in the sun, with Smedley-Aston recalling the riotous time he had attending Cannes when the films was selected as the British entry, and loving the experience so much that he stayed on for another week ( “Alas, not at their expense”) whilst Larraz himself couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Although the relaxed tone of the interview also takes in such topics as of cult favourites Squirm and Blue Sunshine - the former coming complete with a couple of amusing anecdotes about the props - it stays on-topic and his final thoughts on Symptoms speak volumes: “ I thought is was a very good little horror picture,” admits, Smedley-Aston, “I would equate it almost with something like Repulsion. I think it had a wonderful mood to it, and I thought that after that [movie] Jose would really take off, but no, not really. The film wasn't seen much, and so I adopted Jose and we made a film together!” This is fascinating stuff, as few others in the UK film industry have turned their hand to everything and succeeded quite the way Brian Smedley-Aston has.

On Vampyres and Other Symptoms:  Now this is a utter treat. It’s not often that an exquisite piece of film-making comes with an extra every bit as superb, but Celia Novis’ critically acclaimed documentary shows that it can be done, and with great style. Telling the life and cinematic career of Sr. Larraz within a Fumetti framework, see a childhood entrenched in civil-war-torn Barcelona, where solace and distraction was found at a screening of the 1931 Dracula, and ignited passion for cinema and the dark side of human life. It was only whilst attending a Josef Von Sternberg film festival  - where he met the director - that dormant passions were rekindled, jumping into the business at the age of 40, Von Sternberg crucially telling him not to fear the filmmaking process, and just make movies about that which fascinates and interests you.

This is about all we feel obliged to tell you, as the rest is a beguiling study of a very complicated man with a truly unique life: a comic book writer, a former fashion photographer, he was the Spaniard who came to the leafy suburb of Tunbridge Wells and stayed. It’s fitting that the climax takes place at the Sitges film festival, where not only is he the guest of honour, but receives a lifetime achievement award, especially prestigious given that it’s based in the director’s former home turf.

We hear a lot from the man himself, talking frankly of his advancing years and the dour wisdom which comes with age, including how: “…You reach that age where no woman is going to kiss you on the lips... become like ghosts watching the world like a movie. Things happen, but not to me”. Even more sobering is the assessment that simple methods used by everyone to deal with things in life are hollow, their stop-gap nature haunting you in later life, “When you get older,“ Larraz imparts, “…you realize that it's impossible to forgive yourself”. Those looking for bright and breezy might want to stick with the Biography channel.

Being spiritually-minded, Larraz talks candidly about his late wife, and the old house in which they used to live, abandoning it after her death, and the ghosts of the life they lived together being trapped in its very walls. He rather touchingly notes that when he dies, his spirit will remain trapped in there too, united with his beloved. Such ethereal underpinnings are unsurprising for a man who inexplicably kept waking up at 2.20am, the very time his beloved mother died. But Larraz isn’t portrayed as a simple believer of coincidence, as he astutely observes that the fear of ghosts is no more than a manifestation of guilt.

Along with rare footage of his debut film Whirlpool, we are treated to the ingenious inter-splicing new documentary footage of Larraz with clips from his previous movies, dropping him into the action whilst adding changing the narrative by dubbing his pearls of wisdom over them. The expected clips of Vampyres look a little rough, but Symptoms looks dreadful, showing just how far the movie has come in a short space of time from only being available via ropey bootlegs. Well done BFI!

Fuck's sake - don't go up there! Even if you haven't seen Psycho, Jose Larraz clearly has...

Whilst appearing at the 2009 Sitges film festival, the documentary  follows him around the hotel and interacting with the festival staff as he prepares to accept his award. In spite of his event being depressingly sparsely attended, the fans love him as he clearly loves being back home. Choosing to duck out of the main screening, citing that: “…It's enough to make them, I don't want to watch them, too...I just don't feel like seeing Vampyres again”. His relationship with the aforementioned film is a curious one, noting that: “…As crude as Vampyres is, and it's not very good, I feel close to Vampyres”, as it was made very quickly with more of his own personality and no time to lean towards established auteurs.

Returning in time to collect his Honorary Maria Award, along with the surprise of it being presented by Vampyres stars Anulka and Marianne Morris, the latter proving him wrong about age repelling the physical attention of women when she kisses him on the lips at mention of an appearance in the prospective Vampyres 2. Given his sincere dislike of the bullshit nature of Cannes, to be honoured in Barcelona is the culmination of a career, and a fitting way to close out an exceptional documentary.

This is an exceptional look at not just an artist in the twilight times, but a man looking back on his life and career, where a very human portrait emerges. Visually, there is nothing else out there even close to it, and is utterly unique in showing that with age might come wisdom, but doesn’t necessarily bring you comfort.

From Barcelona... To Tunbridge Wells: The Films of Jose Larraz: Part of the legendary Eurotika! series on Channel 4 back in 1999, we saw them all when they came out, and it’s great to finally see another of them get an official release. Here we have a very passionate Larraz being interviewed in his titular UK home, with further contributions from Marianne Morris and Brian Smedley-Aston. It manages to shed light on some of the areas of his career not covered in the feature-length documentary located elsewhere on the disc, and is dovetails nicely with it. There’s no mention of Symptoms, but here you will find out about such delights as The Coming of Sin (aka Violation of the Bitch) and Whirlpool, which fell into the hands of the infamous exploitation distributor Jerry Gross.  The one caveat is how it bemoans that he spent years making violent thrillers and macabre mysteries (inferring them a waste of his talents) and one assumes this is the bracket chosen for Symptoms, either label being an insult when applied to a masterly film.

Those unfamiliar will be treated (and aroused) by the inclusion of footage from the “horse” sequence in The Coming of Sin.   It’s an image which has been a firm favourite of ours for a good  couple of decades, and has done more for wrist-twisting than Professor Erno Rubik. This episode is a particularly good example of the Eurotika! format, and is a treat at any time, let alone watching it drunk on a Saturday night. If only someone would clear up the rights to use the original theme, though!

Theatrical Trailer: Just the best. Incredibly atmospheric, and the kind of purely British advertising for a movie which is both a relic of times past and a reminder that a subtle, haunting sell is much more effective than showing the biggest reveals of the film.  You just want to dive right back into the film again after watching this one!

Booklet: This eighteen-page beauty not only has some great images and artwork from Symptoms, it contains scholarly essay from Vanity Celis contextualising the film and examining the parallels between it and Polankski's Repulsion. There are also full credits for the film and a review of the film from the July 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin.

"So many times, it happens so fast, you change your passion for psychotherapy..."

Overall


Whilst it seems incredible that this film was – up until recently – considered “lost”, especially because it was chosen as Britain's Palm d'Or entry at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, it is even more miraculous that the negatives were found and it is now on DVD and Blu-ray to be discovered by a new generation.

A moody and subdued psychological thriller, with great performances from all concerned, Jose Ramon Larraz may not have the cult following that his fellow Spaniard, Jesus Franco has, but Larraz's films all had something interesting to say and

Symptoms

is no exception. Highly recommended.


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