SYMPTOMS: Taking A Psychotic Break In The Countryside

1974 saw the release of two films that would define the career of director Jose Ramon Larraz.  The first and best known is Vampyres, a distinctive mix of the artsy and visceral that many consider to be the best of the “lesbian vampire” subgenre.  The other, lesser-known film is Symptoms, a lost classic that was considered important enough in its time to represent Britain at the Cannes Film Festival but slipped into obscurity afterwards.  The Symptoms-poslatter film deserves to be rediscovered because it is the opposite of Vampyres in methodology while being an equal in terms of aesthetic quality.

Symptoms takes a gothic horror approach as it sets up its premise: Anne (Lorna Heilbron) leaves behind a faltering romance in the city to visit a country estate owned by her quirky, fragile friend Helen (Angela Pleasance).  Helen is a troubled soul who claims to have extrasensory feelings and is rather possessive towards her friend.  Adding complication is the fact that the house itself is creepy, complete with odd locked-off areas and mysterious voices late at night.  There is also a creepy caretaker (Peter Vaughan) who claims to know secrets about the place and takes a sleazy interest in the women.  Helen begins to slip into madness as the house reveals its secrets, bringing danger for everyone involved.

Those accustomed to the blood-and-bosoms excesses of Larraz’s Vampyres might be shocked by how subtle a film Symptoms is: despite a couple of knife kills that bring back fond memories of Vampyres, much of the film is devoted to quietly building a suffocating atmosphere of dread.  Larraz keeps his style lavish, with Trevor Symptoms-01Wrenn’s cinematography creating an ironically lovely backdrop for the quietly horrific tale and John Scott composing a lush score.  However, this aesthetic is used to build a hypnotic mood that puts a focus on atmosphere and character building.

The result is deliberately paced but pays off as Larraz gradually ratchets up the chills. Symptoms is a story about the dangers of repression and disconnection so it makes perfect sense that Larraz went in the opposite direction of Vampyres to create a movie that thrives on the tension of things heard or perceived but not directly seen. The second half particularly pays off with some wonderfully tense scenes, including a great little setpiece where one character is snooping around in a dark room only to realize someone has snuck in to put an end to the snooping.

Symptoms-02Symptoms also shows Larraz’s ability to get strong performances:  Heilbron makes a likeable audience identification figure but it’s Pleasance who sets the tone with her skillfully observed portrait of a fragile, childlike woman who struggles to keep control over her desires and frustrations.  She’s riveting and yet so understated she makes it look effortless, evoking a high level of emotional intensity with the subtlest facial expressions.  Vaughan is also quite good as the caretaker, evoking a sinister quality without overdoing it and offsetting the creepy touches with an enigmatic quality that draws the audience in.

In short, Symptoms is a gem of quiet horror.  It shows that Larraz was as skillful at subtle chills as he was the more flamboyant variety – and any fan of gothic creepiness will find plenty of decadently dark atmosphere to feast on here.

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