When the BFI announced they were restoring Jose Ramon Larraz’s Symptoms to blu-ray earlier this year, I, like many others who had been waiting, wishing, a master of this “lost film” would be unearthed, could hardly believe the news. The title had been on the BFI’s most wanted list for quite a while, and it seemed like all hope was lost when no elements appeared to be forthcoming despite the appeal. In fact, when I reviewed the film a couple of years ago, the mood of that particular piece focused on lamenting over the fact that Symptoms could only been seen in raw bootleg form (a fact which seemed positively criminal at the time); captured in VHS quality from a showing on British TV in the early eighties. The film seemed to vanish into the ether, after being entered as the official British entry at Cannes in 1974, despite its brief airing on television. Sad times indeed, but now Symptoms is back, fully restored, and rightfully so, given the status of the film as not only a piece of stunning cult horror, but one of the most beautiful, and haunting British genre films of the seventies.
Jose Larraz is known to many horror/exploitation fans through his carnal epic Vampyres (1974); a sultry piece of bloody Britsploitation, with ample lashings of Spanish sauce. While Vampyres still rates as a highly popular title of its kind, the rest of the director’s horror output remains criminally unavailable in quality formats. Like many independent directors of the era, and this point seems especially true for Spanish filmmakers working in Euro-cult (Jorge Grau, Paul Naschy and Amando de Ossorio in particular), their work seems to have fallen by the wayside when it comes to joining the restoration race against their American, British and Italian counterparts. Although the reasons for this are varied and complex, what it amounts to is that the legacy of many of these names is left to stand in the shadows to some extent, and not given the respect due: a fact especially true when talking about Jose Larraz as an important voice in seventies cult horror film. And on that note, this release becomes a particularly important one, regardless of the disturbing fact that some people seem more concerned with moaning about the colour of the box on the recent US edition of the same film. The fact that this film can now be seen in such a beautiful format should be cause for nothing less than pure celebration.
Symptoms represents Larraz on top form. Taking some of the ideas that flowed through the bulk of his early seventies output: madness, cruelty, sexual repression, warped family secrets, lust and obsession; tying up all these themes to make his masterpiece. Larraz’s obvious skill aside, the fact this is a masterpiece owes a huge debt to the exquisite casting involved; a factor lacking in some of his earlier pieces (although that is not to say they aren’t as enjoyable as Symptoms, they are very much so, just for different reasons). But let’s face it, Angela Pleasence gives such an outstanding performance, many would struggle to keep up. Giving it her all in the portrayal of the fragile Helen, a young lady who has returned to the isolated family manor house out in the idyllic English countryside, recovering from a recent illness, the circumstances of which remain shrouded in mystery for most of the plot. Accompanying her is friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron), and it is clear from the outset Helen is smitten. Whether those feelings are reciprocated is never quite clear. Larraz instead focusing on an intense, yet understated, aura of sexual tension rather than opting for the no holds barred approach to lesbian themes he took for many of his other films: most notably Whirlpool (1970), The Coming of Sin (1978), Madame Olga’s Pupils (1981) and the previously mentioned opus Vampyres. Symptoms shares a similar understated vibe in this regard with its direct predecessor Emma, puertas oscura (1974) — as well as the idea of a woman haunted by her past, and disturbing dreams. The nudity factor is low (in contrast to Larraz’s other work), but the tension is fit to bursting; especially when creepy groundsman Brady (Peter Vaughan) is added into the mix. His presence ensuring an ominous tone is maintained throughout.
Even when Larraz was at his trashiest, one thing he could almost always guarantee was a sense of atmosphere and ambiance. With Symptoms he hits his highest notes, utilizing scenes of the British countryside— a dreamy lake and autumnal misty woodland— to create something poetic and haunting that really encompasses a Gothic vibe which Hammer Horror and the other dominating British studios of the time could have only wished for in their wildest dreams. This was a fresh contemporary sense of Gothic, revolving around themes of madness and decay, sexual jealousy, dark shadows and a sense of things that go bump in the night, complete with the odd body in the lake. Larraz takes some of the themes and ideas he explored in his preceding work, embellishing them with a sense of gorgeous English Gothic charm, while removing the elements of sadistic sexual violence seen in Whirlpool (1970), Deviation (1971) and The House that Vanished (1974). The director instead opting to take the same route he traveled in La Muerte Incierta (1973)— and in fact there is a killer POV scene almost mirrored between the two films, which is rendered far more powerful, than seen in the former, by the slowly, slowly approach developed in Symptoms— and Emma, Puertas Oscuras; where similar themes of sexual repression, obsession, and mental illness are used to terrifying effect.
This edition from BFI Flipside, as well as providing a mouthwatering transfer, comes packed with some pretty fabulous extras too; the highlight of which is a particularly charming interview with Angela Pleasence. Pleasence, who confesses to only having revisited the film in recent times, appears genuinely touched it is now considered an important piece of cult cinema and loved by so many fans. Talking with a sense of modesty and wit about her time working on the set, her interview is highly enjoyable. Other interviews include co-star Lorna Heilbron, and Brian Smedley- Aston— who served as an editor on Symptoms but then went on to produce some of Larraz’s later films; including Vampyres. There are also two documentary features included; From Barcelona to Tunbridge Wells: The Films of José Larraz, which many UK fans will recognise from the Pete Tombs’ late nineties TV series Eurotika! (which was originally screened on Channel 4), and On Vampyres and other Symptoms (2011) by Celia Novis, which runs at just over an hour, and provides some important context on the director’s early career.
The Bottom Line
An essential release for all fans of contemporary gothic, British horror and Euro-cult. Existing fans are likely to be overjoyed with the transfer and package of extras provided by BFI Flipside.