On SYMPTOMS

Jose Larraz’s nerve-shredding psycho-thriller packs an unholy punch

Much has been written about director Jose Larraz’s SYMPTOMS 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. And though it lacks the explicitly sexually exploitative frissons of 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, most of which chased the success of Roman Polanksi’s REPULSION. Like that masterful film, Larraz forgoes convoluted narratives and focuses primarily on its central female point of entry. We’re loathe to call the central figure in SYMPTOMS a protagonist, but her mental make-up is complex enough that we cannot dismiss her as an antagonist either. She’s a broken, fragile thing; a woman whose mind has snapped for reasons left only somewhat explained and now, after the presumably severe damage has been done, she’s been rendered deadly and dangerous and feral, with no hope for healing.

And the rub is that we don’t want her to heal. Because watching the character unwind, violently, is such a mesmerizing, visceral and wholly cinematic experience.

SYMPTOMS casts the oddly beautiful Angela Pleasence (daughter of the late Donald Pleasence, seen with her pop in the prior year’s FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE) 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, THE CREEPING FLESH), 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 repressed 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, DIE! DIE! MY DARLING!, STRAW DOGS) 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; 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 this is Larraz’s show. He makes the house itself a character, prowling and propelling his camera through its narrow 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 grisly violence, something that also 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, a finale that I promise won’t be an easy one to shake. SYMPTOMS is unforgettable.

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