Blu-ray Review: Jose Ramon Larraz’s SYMPTOMS

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SHOCK discusses Mondo Macabro’s Blu-ray release of Spanish/British horror film SYMPTOMS.

Much has been written about both the film SYMPTOMS and Mondo Macabro‘s proper Blu-ray release of the movie and with good reason. For decades the picture has been shrouded in mystery, a title made by a much lauded genre filmmaker that, after a high profile premiere at the 1974 Cannes film festival, vanished into obscurity, virtually unseen since its UK television broadcasts in the early 1980s. But the myth surrounding SYMPTOMS isn’t the only reason the film and this release warrants attention. Because, as it is on occasion, the hype here is well warranted.

Indeed, SYMPTOMS is a major work.

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And though it lacks the explicitly sexually exploitative frissons of director Jose Ramon Larraz’s most famous picture, that same year’s VAMPYRES, SYMPTOMS is a far more emotionally and psychologically upsetting experience. It’s a finely detailed character piece, a “crazy lady” psychodrama in line with so many other worthy films like Polanksi’s REPULSION and recent works like Mickey Keating’s DARLING. Like those masterful films, Larraz forgoes convoluted narratives and focuses primarily on its central female point of entry. We’re loathe to call them protagonists, but their mental make-up is complex enough that we cannot dismiss them as antagonists either. They’re broken, fragile things; women whose minds have snapped for reasons left somewhat explained and now, after the presumably severe damage has been done, they’ve been rendered deadly and dangerous and feral, with no hope for healing.

And we wouldn’t want them to heal. Because watching them unwind, violently, is such a mesmerizing experience.

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SYMPTOMS casts the oddly beautiful Angela Pleasence (daughter of the late Donald Pleasence and an actor I’ve always sworn is a ringer for singer/songwriter Tori Amos) as Helen, an emotionally unstable girl who lives alone in the English countryside. As the film opens, Helen has invited her friend Ann (Lorna Heilbron), who is escaping a bad marriage, to stay with her. But Ann soon finds out that Helen is more than just shy and, after catching clues as to the deeper secrets the young woman is hiding, and meeting some of the strange people who creep around the peripheral of the home, she attempts to flee. Instead, she re-awakens Helen’s barely dormant madness and is promptly murdered for her efforts.

Helen than goes further off the rails. As is the norm with these sorts of pictures, her madness is tied to her sexuality and we are treated to scenes of Helen masturbating and imagining lesbian encounters with a mysterious woman. As she gets more and more deranged, we learn more about her strange relationship with the grinning groundskeeper (Peter Vaughan) and, when people come to call on the house, they don’t seem to leave. Meanwhile, darkness falls and the storm rages, both literal and otherwise…

It would be easy to credit SYMPTOMS’ power solely to Pleasence, who is so very, very good here; her wide, spaced out eyes and fine-boned features conveying an aristocratic innocence when she is vulnerable, features that contort terrifyingly when Helen goes into full-blown psychotic attack mode. But Larraz is the master here. He makes the house a character, prowling his camera through its corridors, following his female monster,  studying her quietly (he loves to remove music and just let sounds, like the rhythmic tick of the clock pendulum, serve as the aural glue) and lunging into a frenzy during those aforementioned murder scenes. Larraz specializes in juxtaposing moments of considered calm with bursts of visceral violence, something that makes VAMPYRES such a memorable work. Here, he is in complete control, drawing his audience into an environment and keeping us there until the film’s final, haunting moments.

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Mondo Macabro have treated this release with care by not only presenting a gorgeous, transferred from the negative HD image, but loading the back-end with a glut of great features, most memorable of which is an interview with Pleasence herself, who has aged rather well and speaks in the same gentle tones as her beloved father. Producer Brian Smedley-Aston also speaks on this film and his career as well as his work at large and relationship with Larraz. We also get two documentaries on Larraz and an interview with Heilbron.

An essential release of an unforgettable, slow-burning film, one that you will no doubt find hard to shake.