After some time of seperation, Helen (Angela Pleasance) invites her friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to her idyllic mansion on the British country side. Little does Anne know that the estate has its secrets, all of which seem to revolve around Helen’s mysterious persona.
With the start of the seventies, the landscape of British horror cinema was changing. The films from the famous Hammer studios started to shift focus from their successful Gothic horror formula to more psychologically tinted tales of terror, such as ‘Demons Of The Mind’ and ‘Fear In The Night’. Directors like Peter Walker rose to the scene, presenting us films sprinkled with shocking murders and populated by mentally troubled characters. Not seldom so would controversial themes like incestuous relationships or lesbianism flavor those independently made Euro-horror productions. It was during this era – the early ’70s – that Spanish illustrator-turned-director José Ramón Larraz would move to England to make his first films (often directing under his pseudonym Joseph Larrath). And what can be said right away, is that the man brought a certain distinct Southern-European flavor to his films; a flavor that would recognizably differentiate him from his fellow British filmmakers. ‘Symptoms’ is, to this date, still an obscure, underviewed and slightly underrated work of genre cinema, not unlike the way ‘Let’s Scare Jessica To Death’ used to be.
If it wouldn’t have been for Roman Polanski‘s ‘Repulsion’, made a decade prior to Larraz‘s sixth full length feature, ‘Symptoms’ would have been a highly original genre effort at the time. Much can be said about Larraz borrowing a lot of thematical motives from Polanski‘s classic, but still ‘Symptoms’ remains a fairly unique film. At the time an official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, it reportedly caused confusion and discomfort amongst the viewing audience. While watching the film, one might understand such an initial reaction, nevertheless, the result still is an accomplished movie made by a director with a clear vision who very much knew which route he was taking while developing the story and characters. In other words, ‘Symptoms’ turned out a fairly enigmatic experience, but in the end Larraz leaves no question to what the film was really about. Wether the denouement will leave you with a sense of mild disappointment or firm approval, there’s no arguing that Larraz manages to wrap things up in an accurate and fashionable manner.
‘Symptoms’ is the kind of film that might evoke a lukewarm reaction at first, but the more you let it seep in, the more it gets under your skin. And the more you think about it, the better a film it actually becomes. Perhaps mainly because the intrigue isn’t that complex after all and the screenplay, while appearing slightly puzzling at first, actually fits in the end. Angela Pleasance is perfectly cast as the introvert Helen. With being the daughter of Donald Pleasance, she bears a striking resemblance to the famous character actor, which balances her down-toned performance somewhere between serene beauty and uncanny awkwardness. Lorna Heilbron, playing the more worldly experienced Anne, gives fair counterweight in terms of acting. While both their performances may appear static at times and dialogues often feel a bit artificial, all this seems strangely suitable according the nature of the film. Unattractively raw male presence (peculiar casting) is provided by Brady (Peter Vaughan), caretaker of the estate, who does serve a purpose in the plot. Fourth key-figure in the story is the character of Cora, played by Belgian actress Marie-Paule Mailleux (whose short-lived career in cinema remains as mysterious as her ‘lady in black’ character in this movie), which steers the intrigue more towards the ghostly and the sexual.
‘Symptoms’ opens in a similar fashion like Larraz‘s earlier film ‘Deviation’, with visuals of events unclear to whether they are flash-forwards or flash-backs. While in ‘Deviation’ this opening felt disorientating and rather random, with ‘Symptoms’ Larraz will ultimately have his prologue sequence tie in much better with the rest of the story. Clearly out to disorientate his audience from the start, Larraz then quickly settles on a much more suitable atmosphere, both foreboding and enchanting throughout the entire film. The events will start to unfold at a slow and steady pace. In visualizing this tale of mystery, Larraz found the perfect partner in cinematographer Trevor Wrenn. Many images throughout the film (especially the exterior shots of the woods and lake) often conjure a feeling of both bleakness and beauty. And there’s an air of sensitiveness in the way the camera captures some of the interactions between leading ladies Pleasance and Heilbron (mostly noticeable when Larraz and Wrenn apply slow travel/tracking shots during simple dialogue scenes on some of the interior sets; a stylistic trademark they would also apply when collaborating on ‘Scream… And Die!, produced that same year).
Larraz definitely flirts with our established notions of the supernatural in ‘Symptoms’, in such a manner that one particular scene might even have you reminiscing a classic British ghost story like Jack Clayton‘s ‘The Innocents’. Yet Larraz and his co-writers Stanley Miller and Thomas Owen deliberately keep things ambiguous to entice the expectations of the viewer. Various scenes will have a certain suggestive power and will raise questions, yet it will take until the final shot of the film for things to become clear. And you may expect Larraz to break this overall slow-brooding mystery with a few sudden outbursts of shocking, murderous violence. Nothing too explicit, though, and even the brief glances at female nudity actually serve a purpose here in shaping the protagonist’s state of mind. With what all ‘Symptoms’ has to offer, it turned out a well-balanced film and not at all a bad place to start when wanting to delve into Larraz‘s filmography for the first time.
Full movie on YouTube.