Spanish director José Ramón Larraz’s Symptoms (1974), only available in grainy bootlegs and believed missing for decades, was famously resurrected earlier this year through a collaboration between Mondo Macabro and the British Film Institute. By now both UK and US releases have received glowing praise, as the unveiling of Symptoms on Blu-ray alone, even with no special features, would be a contender for release of the year. Diabolique’s Editor-in-Chief, Kat Ellinger, has already provided an in-depth analysis of the film itself and lovingly examined the BFI release, which has a number of overlapping special features with the Mondo Macabro disc: both include pristine transfers, interviews with star Angela Pleasence, co-star Lorna Heilbron, and editor (and later producer) Brian Smedley-Aston.
Both discs also include the documentaries From Barcelona to Tunbridge Wells: The Films of José Larraz, footage from Mondo Macabro founder Pete Tombs’ TV series Eurotika!, and Celia Novis’s documentary On Vampyres and Other Symptoms (2011). I have to say that I’m a little frustrated that there are two separate releases — as both companies worked together to bring this achievement about — but at the end of the day, the two-disc Mondo Macabro special edition Blu-ray wins out. And I’m not just saying that because they asked me to write the essay that accompanies the release’s liner notes. Since I’ve already discussed the film at length there, I’d like to focus on the Symptoms’ special features, which have been mentioned, mostly in passing, in recent reviews of both the Mondo Macabro and BFI releases.
Truly impressive special features for cult film releases have been a mixed bag in the last decade or so, with some companies really giving their all for obscure, seemingly forgotten films — Criterion and Arrow are often cited as examples of this — and Symptoms is a title that more than deserves such treatment. A quiet subtle film, and a rare example of a Spanish director making a movie set in England with predominantly English actors that feels utterly European, Symptoms can best be compared to other genre reimaginings of the “woman’s film” popularized in the ‘40s and ‘50s, like Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Bergman’s Persona (1966), or low budget American film Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971).
A young woman named Helen (Angela Pleasence) invites her friend Anne (Lorna Helibron) to come stay at her estate in the English countryside. Their idyll is disturbed by the aggressive attentions of the groundskeeper (Peter Vaughan), Helen’s unraveling mental state, and whispers of a previous guest, whose luggage Anne eventually finds in the attic. The nebulous relationship between Helen and Anne, which has sexual undertones, becomes a source of anxiety for Anne, as Helen becomes more paranoid and unpredictable.
Stylish, pastoral, and languid, Symptoms is an utter surprise, despite its aforementioned connection to films like Repulsion and (especially) Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. In some ways, Larraz’s films can be compared to those of Jean Rollin — like the French director’s films, Larraz’s masterpieces like Symptoms and Vampyres are largely concerned with female protagonists, lush nudity, and themes of sex, death, love, and madness — though they are quite unlike in tone or style. Of course, it is also worth noting that Larraz’s earlier efforts, such as Whirlpool (1970) and Deviation (1971), as well as his later works that explore a range of genres, are notably different.
A key to understanding Larraz’s work, as well as the director himself, is Celia Novis’s excellent documentary On Vampyres and Other Symptoms. Unlike many other director-focused or biographical documentaries, Novis doesn’t focus the majority of her running time on the details of Larraz’s life or films, but on the psychology fueling it all, as well as the ultimate outcome of a life spent in genre cinema. In depth interviews of the aged director — framed around his visit to the Sitges Film Festival, where he was celebrated and received a much-deserved achievement award — are intercut with comic strips about his early life, clips of his films, more abstract scenes about the type of subject matter that inspired his work, and moments of a narrator reading scenes from his scripts juxtaposed with the making of the documentary itself.
Larraz discusses everything from his literary inspiration (Thomas Owen and Henry James) and his artistic background, to the chance meeting with Josef von Sternberg that led to him pursuing a career in filmmaking at the relatively late age of 40. A frank and sometimes unsettling look at the life of an outre director, the film does not shy away from Larraz’s advanced age, the disappointments of his life, or his apparent isolation. He explains that the loneliness of old age makes one feel like a ghost, and stresses the importance of spirits and supernatural presences on his life and work. He states that insomnia has been a constant presence and discusses the themes of death, loss, fear of the dark, creepy old houses, ghosts, storms and other natural terrors that haunt his films. He describes himself as “someone who is attracted to fear,” and this is the overarching theme of the documentary.
Though quite different in subject matter and presentation, but not to be outdone, is not just the Eurotika! material, but especially Larraz on Larraz, a two-hour archival interview with Larraz that is only available on the limited, special edition Mondo Macabro release. While From Barcelona to Tunbridge Wells: The Films of José Larraz really gives a detailed look at the making of things like Vampyres and Symptoms, the two-hour interview feels like a continuation of On Vampyres and Other Symptoms, even though it was filmed nearly twenty years before. It’s rare to get such an in-depth look at a director’s life, in his own words. Taken from the television show and previously unavailable, this explores everything from Larraz’s experiences at Cannes, his life as a cult filmmaker, his passionate love of England, meeting some of his collaborators, the making of specific films, and much more.
All of the special features, from Larraz on Larraz to From Barcelona to Tunbridge Wells: The Films of José Larraz and On Vampyres and Other Symptoms, and even the short interviews, stand as a unique celebration of Larraz’s life and they represent the sort of extensive material you would expect to find in a box set featuring several of a director’s films. Larraz passed away recently, in 2013, essentially right on the footsteps of fellow European cult directors like Jean Rollin (2010) and Jess Franco (2013), and Mondo Macabro’s limited release of Symptoms is not only an outstanding presentation of his masterpiece, but is the most extensive exploration of his life to date.