Angela Pleasence, like her father, has a face made for the cinema though not in the realm of conventional leading ladies. Even as a young actress appearing in bit parts in movies like Here We Go Around the Mulberry Bush (1968) and The Love Ban (1973), she was never a winsome ingénue or the lovable girl next store. Her uniquely peculiar beauty – especially those hungry eyes that bore holes right through you – must have somehow hindered her movie career because her film roles have been few and far between. She is mostly remembered for her television work, particularly her role as Catherine Howard in the 1970 TV mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, but she should have had the film career her father had on the basis of Symptoms (1974) alone.
Until recently, very few people, even hardcore horror aficionados, have been able to see this film – which disappeared from view shortly after its acrimonious debut in 1974 at the Cannes Film Festival. Symptoms popped up a few years later on British television and then dropped out of sight again. A shame because it could have led to better things for both Angela Pleasence and the film’s director, Jose Ramon Larraz, who is best known for Vampyres (1975), an erotic, blood-drenched exploitation classic which can stand beside Jean Rollin’s softcore vampire fantasies and Jess Franco’s oeuvre in terms of sexual explicitness and violence.
Compared to Vampyres though, Symptoms is a subtle, deliberately paced and haunting mood piece that plays mind games with the viewer and generates a sense of unease and growing menace by charting the slow mental disintegration of an obviously disturbed young woman named Helen (Pleasence). She appears to be going quietly mad and the movie follows suit. Yes, we’re in Repulsion territory here and Larraz even manages a few direct homages to that 1965 Roman Polanski masterpiece.
In one scene, Helen walks past a mirror and catches a glimpse of someone behind her in the corner – who isn’t really there – similar to the scene where Catherine Deneuve opens her mirrored bathroom cabinet and sees a hulky man standing behind her (also a delusion). Much more jolting is a scene where Helen is washing dishes in the kitchen and is startled by a face staring at her outside the window that quickly retreats into the blackness of night.
Instead of the claustrophobic tension of Repulsion (which took place most prominently in Catherine Deneuve’s apartment), Larraz has situated his protagonist in a sprawling, musty mansion in the bucolic English countryside. But the beautiful, natural surroundings seem to harbor something evil. Or is it only in the mind of Helen? Larraz breathes new life into the old cinema trick of is-it-real-or-not, creating a genuine frisson while establishing an all pervasive atmosphere of decay, isolation and mourning.
Symptoms opens with sunlight streaming through the morning mist of the forest. We see a quick juxtaposition of a sexual rendezvous by the edge of a lake with a shot of a corpse floating in the water and then we hear Helen’s voiceover as she makes an entry in her journal: “Last night I dreamt that they had returned. They were here again just like in other dreams but this time so confused. I have a feeling that something is about to happen. Something final in which I will be involved.”
Thus, a foreboding gothic tone is established in Larraz’s trim, economic approach to a bare bones storyline. Helen has just returned to her family home from Switzerland, accompanied by her friend Ann (Lorna Heilbron). Although Helen states she was doing translation work in Geneva, it is eventually revealed that she was in a sanitarium where her primary form of escapism was creating paper dolls and burning them in the fireplace, a ritual she returns to with a focused precision. The house and family estate, however, conjure up disturbing memories for Helen, mostly involving Cora (Marie-Paule Mailleux), a former friend who was obviously much more than that. There are also strange sounds at night. Whispers, moans, crazed laughter and the distinct sound of someone walking around in the attic.
Like a precursor to The Sixth Sense, Symptoms presents Helen as someone who is attuned to sounds from another world – “I can hear things that nobody else can.” Even Ann has heard eerie voices and noises and begins an investigation of her own, sparked by her suspicions of Brady (Peter Vaughan), the sinister handyman living on the estate, her curiosity about Cora’s disappearance and the certainty that someone else is living with them in the house.
While it is true that some of the plot twists in Symptoms are predictable and easy to spot from the get-go, it is equally true that the film often plays out in unexpected ways and when violence erupts, it is usually swift, brutal and shocking in the manner of Hitchcock’s Psycho and Polanski’s Repulsion; one murder is very similar to the demise of Patrick Wymark in the latter film. I especially like the way Larraz uses both silence and natural sounds (leaves rustling, birds chirping, constant rain, boat oars dipping into water) to convey a deceptively calm private world that is actually seething with repressed sexuality and murderous rage.
Larraz also establishes an undeniable erotic tension between Helen and Ann and begs the question – what is their relationship? Is Ann a friend from childhood or school? Is she a former lover? All we know about her is that she is taking a brief vacation from a needy boyfriend but her interest in Helen is more akin to a therapist studying a patient than that of a close friend.
Helen, on the other hand, seems barely conscious of her sublimated desires which the director captures in quick telling observations like the way Helen stares at Ann’s backside as she undresses for a bath or her sullen response when Ann’s estranged boyfriend makes an unwelcome appearance at the house. In some ways, they appear to be a more closeted version of the Jill (Sandy Dennis) and Ellen (Anne Heywood) characters in the 1967 film version of D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox with Helen the more overtly feminine one and Ann the more self-assured dominant partner.
Lorna Heilbron as Ann makes an enormously appealing heroine and is the sole voice of reason in the film. Peter Vaughan makes an equally strong impression as the enigmatic but seemingly malevolent Brady – is he a scorned lover, a blackmailer, or a disgruntled veteran of the English class system? He doesn’t really reveal his hand until the film’s finale.
More than anything, Symptoms is a superb showcase for Angela Pleasence and she is simply mesmerizing in the central role. She has a very ethereal presence but there is something spooky about her too. She’s not of this world and it wasn’t much of a casting stretch when she was cast in The Godsend in 1980 as a possibly alien mother who gives birth and then abandons her baby to an English couple (played by Malcolm Stoddard and Cyd Hayman).
Most horror buffs know her for that film, which was sadly underrated by reviewers who dismissed it as a pale imitation of The Omen, and her role, opposite her father, in the episode “An Act of Kindness” from the anthology thriller, From Beyond the Grave (1974). Both were small parts in comparison to her work here and were more straightforward genre exercises. Still, you could argue that Pleasence stole The Godsend (one of the few horror films directed by a woman, Gabrielle Beaumont) from her co-stars and it was her eerie cameo that stayed locked in your head long after the movie had faded from memory. Still, Symptoms could have been the career-changing film for her if all had gone well.
Unfortunately, according to Vathal Tohill and Pete Tombs in their excellent survey, Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984, the premiere of Symptoms at the Cannes Film Festival didn’t work to its advantage: “Larraz wasn’t too happy about promoting Symptoms at Cannes because it was a low budget film, and would be at a disadvantage when compared with glossy big budget productions. When he arrived at the festival these fears proved to be the least of his worries. Some disgruntled British directors, led by Michael Winner, had condemned the film. They wanted Ken Russell’s Mahler to be screened instead. As Larraz saw it, the main bone of contention seemed to be his dago impertinence – “What was a bloody Spaniard doing making films in Britain?” Cannes was pretty unbearable for him that year because everyone wanted to get in on the act. His fellow countrymen were outraged because he’d left Spain to make films in Britain, the French were miffed for the same reasons, it seemed that everyone had an axe to grind over the film’s nomination. Despite being selected for Cannes it took two years for the film to be screened in Britain…”
With the exception of Vampyres, Larraz’s best known film, the Spanish director’s work remains under the radar despite a filmography of more than 24 features and some television work including the mini-series Goya (1985). Of the three Larraz films I’ve seen and the ones I’ve read about, it is obvious that here is someone whose range is both wildly eclectic and versatile. From the sordid excess of Whirlpool (1970), his debut exploitation feature, to the atmospheric, low-key Symptoms to the erotic surrealism of La visita del vicio (1978, aka The Coming of Sin aka Violation of the Bitch), Larraz combines the sensibilities of an underground filmmaker with the instincts of a shrewd commercial craftsman but success continues to elude him in the U.S.
It’s true that some of his later work like the tedious, by-the-numbers supernatural thriller Black Candles (1982, aka Los Ritos Sexuales del Diablo) were pure grindhouse items made on a low budget for quick profit but much of his earlier work such as La Muerte Incierta (1973) and Emma, Puertas Oscuras (1974) sound as promising as Symptoms. At least he was finally honored by his own country at the 2009 Sitges Film Festival where he received a tribute (along with cult horror star Paul Naschy and others) and a mini-retrospective including Symptoms, Rest in Pieces (1987) and Edge of the Axe (1988).
Before entering the business José Ramón Larraz Gil, also known as Joseph Braunstein, Joseph L. Bronstein, Jos L. Gil, J.R. Larrath, J.R. Larrath, Joseph Larraz, Jos R. Larraz, Jos Larraz, and J.R. Lazzar, had worked as a comic strip artist and a photographer, both of which had an important influence on the way he made films. Born in Barcelona in 1929, Larraz moved to England, via Paris, in the late sixties. He was a self-confessed anglophile and one of the things he liked most about England was the wooded countryside, with its atmosphere of dank mystery. Larraz’s films are filled with shots of eerie yet evocative sunsets, forests and Neo-Gothic buildings. His England is a place with a life of its own.
In the late seventies Larraz returned to Spain for the remainder of his career with the exception of two low-budget slasher films shot in the U.S. – Edge of the Axe (1989) and Deadly Manor (1990). He died on September 3, 2013 at age 84 in Malaga, Spain, but before his passing, he saw a revival of interest in his films, especially in America and countries outside Spain. In recent years, Blu-ray/DVD outfits like Arrow Films, Vinegar Syndrome and others have remastered and released some of Larraz’s key films. Arrow’s box set Blood Hunger: The Films of Jose Larraz, for example, includes impressive 2k scans of Whirlpool, Vampyres and The Coming of Sin.
As for Symptoms, it remained an elusive item on any format for many years but in 2016 the film was released as a dual-format (Blu-ray/DVD) by the BFI’s Flipside label in the U.K. At the same time, Mondo Macabro released Symptoms on Blu-ray in the U.S. and both releases shared the same transfer and slate of bonus features. Among them are an interview with Angela Pleasence, a documentary on the films of Jose Ramon Larraz, a featurette on the editor Brian Semdley-Aston and more.
Other links of interest: