Blu-ray / DVD combi edition. Region Free. BFI. 15.
Do you remember, dear reader, when ITV (in its various regional incarnations) was actually worth watching? Before it was completely overrun with talent contests, reality programs and shit films, ITV was synonymous with World In Action, The World At War and… late night screenings of really cool, obscure films. I distinctly remember Lucio Fulci’s “lost” meisterwerk Beatrice Cenci (1969) turning up in the graveyard slot on Granada during the late ’80s, round about the time we were cooking up Samhain… ditto Symptoms (1974) by Jose Ramon Larraz. The latter broadcast became the source of innumerable VHS bootlegs which were the only way to see and appreciate Larraz’s film for about thirty years, as all negatives seemed to have disappeared. Now you can chuck your bootlegs away because, after featuring it for some time on their “75 Most Wanted” list, the BFI have finally tracked down the required elements for Symptoms and issued this all-singing and dancing Blu-ray edition, on their more exploitation-oriented “Flipside” imprint… this, mind you, for the film which managed to bump Ken Russell’s Mahler as the UK entrant for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1974.
The first thing to say about Symptoms, the thing you really can’t avoid mentioning, is the obvious debt that it owes to Polanski’s Repulsion, 1965 (though that’s probably too simplistic a statement of the relationship between the two films… no less a pundit than David Pirie has argued that Larraz actually outdoes his avatar here.) In Repulsion Catherine Deneuve’s alienated young manicurist comes unglued amid the isolation of the big city, her repressed sexuality erupting into unconscionable violence before she retreats irrevocably into catatonia.
Symptoms unfolds as though Larraz and his co-writers (Stanley Miller and Thomas Owen) have been pondering whether she might have achieved a more positive outcome by heading for the sticks and honouring the early ’70s tradition of (in the vernacular of the time) getting her shit together in the country. The answer they arrive at seems to be… no! The shit hits the proverbial fan when this notional rural idyll turns out to be every bit as oppressively agoraphobic as any urban milieu. Perhaps this jaundiced take on our green and pleasant land is a particularly Spanish phenomenon… in the same year as Symptoms, Jorge Grau turned in his surreal and utterly alarming twist on English gothic, The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue.
Helen (Angela Pleasance) invites her friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to her old lake-side house so that the latter can get over the trauma of a romantic bust-up. It will transpire that Helen is getting over an even more drastic sundering, but for the time being it’s as well to note that she’s a bit odd…. intense. Presumably a classic screen beauty like Deneuve would have been beyond Larraz’s budget anyway, but Symptoms benefits immensely from the casting of Pleasance, whose peculiarly puckish presence draws the viewer into an ongoing guessing game regarding just WTF her problem is.
Whatever it is, it’s got something to do with the disappearance of her “friend” Cora (briefly glimpsed in the shape of Marie-Paule Mailleux during intermittent flash backs)… nor do the vaguely sinister attentions of lurking handyman Brady (Peter Vaughan) in any way alleviate the growing tension, which builds beautifully for about an hour before a final third which maintains the film’s supremely creepy atmosphere while punctuating it with an escalating series of grand guignol eruptions. In Symptoms, Larraz reiterates Polanski’s point about sexual self-loathing and the potential it has warp the self and damage others, a concept whose relevance to real life is all too readily apparent at the time I sit here typing these words….
I reacquainted myself with Symptoms during a thunderstorm which complimented the on screen events quite beautifully… then again I remember how wonderfully evocative and engaging the film was, viewed late at night in my parents’ lounge, all those years ago. This perfectly orchestrated chamber piece will probably weave its disturbing magic in whatever circumstances it is seen. Larraz is exceptionally well served here by sympathetic collaborators… his cast, his DP Trevor Wrenn, his art director Ken Bridgeman and composer John Scott… also by his own polymath grounding in comic book art, fashion photography and art history. There are frames of Pleasence’s face that suggest a Vermeer portrait. Elsewhere, some of the house’s William Morris interiors are echoed in the fronds which embrace the corpse of a woman discovered in the lake, a scene which itself strongly suggests a pre-Raphaelite rendering of Ophelia.
Symptoms failed to garner anything like a feverish reaction at Cannes Festival or indeed anywhere else, but its editor Brian Smedley-Aston was sufficiently impressed by Larraz to remortgage his house to fund the directors’s Vampyres the same year, an altogether more lurid take on the “rural lesbian violence” schtick that also comes highly recommended. The witty Smedley-Aston is interviewed for this set’s generous compliment of bonus features, as are Pleasence and Heilbron. As well as his work with Larraz, he discusses editing (and being obliged to re-edit) Performance with Donald Cammell and his experiences on the Jeff Lieberman films Squirm and Blue Sunshine. To her Symptoms reminiscences, Heilbron (now working as a psychotherapist) adds her reflections on Freddie Francis’s The Creeping Flesh (1973) and rhapsodises about acting alongside Peter Cushing. Pleasance is interesting, insightful and funny (e.g. when she reveals that her “perfectly circular head” saved her life when a heavy light fell on it during the making of Symptoms.) For all of these new interviews we have to thank our old mate Pete Tombs and the From Barcelona… To Tunbridge Wells episode of his 1999 Channel 4 series Eurotika! is also revived here (remember, dear reader, when Channel 4 was actually worth watching?) Pride of place though, must go to Celia Novi’s award winning 2011 feature On Vampires And Other Symptoms, an impressive, impressionistic mash up of JRL’s two most celebrated pictures, his autobiographical comic strips and what turns out to be a trip to the 2009 Sitges Film Festival (four years before his death) where the Catalonian director received an honorary award and was treated to a surprise reunion with Vampyres stars Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska…. those scenes alone were worth the price of admission.