When a delicate Helen brings her writer girlfriend Anne West to her country mansion retreat to keep her company, as she recovers from an undisclosed illness, local tongues start wagging. Where is her usual companion Cora? How is Helen recovering? Just when Helen needs solitude it seems she is getting more attention then she wants, especially from the strange groundsman Brady who unnerves her by constantly lurking around. It doesn’t help that her new friend Anne keeps asking too many difficult questions and Brady has developed an unhealthy interest in her too. Helen is not like other people, she confesses, she hears things that other people can’t, things from the attic that keep her awake at night.
‘Last night I dreamt that they had returned, they were here again, just like in other dreams. But this time it was all confused. I have a feeling that something is about to happen, something final, in which I will be involved’ -Helen.
Suspense, mystery, haunting, murder, gothic, lesbianism.
|José Ramón Larraz||(as Joseph Larraz)|
|José Ramón Larraz||screenplay (as Joseph Larrza)|
|Mike Grady||…||Nick (as Michael Grady)|
There is a bit of a sad story which surrounds Symptoms and its general release. After being entered into the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and getting a brief screening on British television in the early 80s it disappeared into obscurity. It now drifts around in the hands of private collectors on VHS rip bootlegs, being the only format on which it now exists, all original print material is believed to be missing or destroyed. I say this is sad because Symptoms is one of those films which is so deserving of a worldwide bells and whistles, remastered, red carpet treatment onto digital format that so many other retro titles are getting these days but without an original print there is very little that can be done. Symptoms is a prime example of why Jose Ramon Larraz, who sadly passed away just ten days ago at the age of 84, was such an underrated director. The movie brims with gothic charm, has an atmosphere you can cut with a knife, features some beautiful cinematography and locations, with stand out performances from the lead actors involved, a completely underrated retro masterpiece which deserves more attention than it has had.
The plot develops at brooding pace which ensures the tension and mystery builds to suffocating levels right until the end, packed full of suspense, with some surprisingly scary twists and turns. The story pivots on the outstanding performance by Angela Pleasence (daughter of the Late, Great, Donald) as the feeble and frail Helen. I have to admit I do not know much about Angela’s acting career, only having seen her previously working alongside her father Donald in the segment ‘An Act of Kindness’ for the Amicus 1973 anthology From Beyond the Grave. I mean this with the greatest respect but there is something brilliantly creepy about Angela’s physical appearance that makes her so fitting for horror, she really is quite strange to look at, and I wonder why she did not feature in more genre roles. Although her success in the role is not just down to her appearance, she is obviously an actor with an immense talent. Helen is portrayed as neurotic, insecure, and vulnerable and contrasts perfectly to Lorna Heilbron’s Anne who is upbeat, strong and initially seems completely unphased by Helen’s increasingly bizarre behaviour. The dynamic between the two outlines a perfect contrast Helen as a dark and tortured soul while Anne is bathed in light and optimism. There is not an extensive cast to talk about but all the supporting roles are played solidly especially that of creepy groundsman Brady, played by Peter Vaughan, who is sinister and unnerving throughout.
The lesbianism element is an interesting one, mainly because it is not pursued as graphically as in Vampyres, it is more of an erotic hint than an all out boobs and gropefest which at times leaves you wondering if the relationship between Helen and Anne is reciprocated on both sides. For fans of Vampyres though do not let this put you off, it works with the nature of the script believe me, if Larraz had pushed the boundaries too far it would have ruined the understated atmosphere which makes the film so successful. That is not to say this movie is not without its moments of gratuitous gore and nudity but Larraz strikes a perfect balance which works in harmony with the serious tone of the piece.
While Larraz seems blessed with a strong cast for this feature he is also able to squeeze atmosphere from every nook and cranny of the locations he uses to compliment the performances involved. The use of a remote country estate surrounded by woodland (a basis he has used in some of his other films) is exploited perfectly giving a sense of isolation, vulnerability and danger which mirrors that of the fragile mind of Helen. Every inch of the set is used to extract horror, the lake, the woods, the groundsman’s cabin, shadowy corridors, a staircase leading to the attic, all carry the potential to inflict terror at any given moment, which results in giving this film a sense of prevailing dread throughout that seeps into every pore. That is not to mention his choice of locations, again as in his previous work, are beautiful and he uses his talent to capture this essence making the film a cut above similar pieces in terms of style and class.
It is such a shame that circumstances have left this brilliant film to float around in the netherworld of lost movie heaven, but it can be found (and at the time of writing is on youtube in its entirety) for those who want to seek it out. Having discovered it I have to say it has gone down in my list of genre classics, understated genius from Jose Larraz, haunting, beautiful and a cut above many of its peers, Symptoms is a real masterpiece.