Release Date: 26th May 2016.
Director: Jose Ramon Larraz.
Starring: Angela Pleasance, Lorna Helibron, Peter Vaughn.
Having been released back in 1974 and entered into the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, Jose Ramon Larraz’ British horror film Symptoms has always been incredibly difficult to obtain. It was last seen on TV in 1983 and has since lived only in legend.
This year the British Film Institute announced that they were releasing the infamous British horror on DVD and Blu Ray. Movie Marker’s Stu Greenfield takes a look at this mysterious and under rated film from the same director as the better known Vampyres (1974).
Set in a large country house surrounded by woods in the English countryside, Symptoms focuses on Helen Ramsey (Angela Pleasance and Ann West (Lorna Helibron). They return to Helen’s family home from Switzerland and it soon becomes apparent that there is more to this situation than meets the eye. As they spend more time together Helen’s nervous disposition becomes apparent, as does her affection for Ann. A previous occupant of the house, Cora, is spoken about but appears to touch a nerve with Helen who refuses to talk about her in any detail. Also present is the grounds keeper and handyman Brady (Peter Vaughn), and the cracks in his relationship with Helen are tangible, but without context. Gradually the sinister and disturbing truth is revealed as Larraz charts the mental decline of the protagonist in a comparable narrative journey to that of the lead in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
Symptoms is worlds away from Larraz other 1974 film Vampyres, utilising subtleties and subtext to hold the audiences focus rather than in your face lesbianism and violence. Whilst both of these themes are present, Symptoms is more disturbing than Vampyres because of it’s nuances and implications. Larraz plays on the audiences imagination before he offers up the answers and context.
The quick shots and close ups provide an atmosphere that is reminiscent of fellow British horror Don’t Look Now. Whilst the first half of Symptoms is full of melancholic exposition and ground laying, the second half provides some intense bloody violence. The frugal use of music only adds to the atmosphere, with a strong focus on using the natural sounds of the environment to enhance the effect the setting has on the film.
Angela Pleasance, daughter of Halloween’s Donald Pleasance, is perfectly cast as the lead role. Her piercing blue eyes and ability to portray a seemingly vulnerable and nervous young lady whilst also providing a sinister undertone is outstanding. Her performance is both chilling and endearing at the same time. Strong supporting performances by both Lorna Helibron and Peter Vaughn combine to provide a disquieting experience.
The BFI Blu-Ray release brings with it a host of extras including a retrospective documentary about Larraz titled From Barcelona…to Tunbridge Wells. A feature length documentary titled On Vampyres and Other Symptoms looks at Larraz’s two most acclaimed films. Interviews with both lead actresses offer an insight into working with each other and with Larraz whilst an interview with the editor Brian Smedley-Aston focuses on his life in film. Aside from the DVD based extras there is also an illustrated booklet that includes both film credits and essays.
Symptoms has been shrouded by legend and mystery since its ominous release which has detracted from the films achievements as a piece of cinema. A chilling and expertly constructed horror that focuses on nuances rather than in your face violence, Symptoms is a must for any British horror fan.