Monday, August 12, 2013
Sometimes being a fan of these types of films can be frustrating. Not in the sense of some of them being obscure and at times a bit difficult to track down, that sort of thing comes with the territory as any fan will attest to, not to mention the DVD-R grey market making getting a hold of certain films on disc relatively easy. The frustrating part comes as a result of films that should have had an official DVD release a long time ago still lingering on the shelf. The fact that the majority of the films of José Ramón Larraz have yet to receive legitimate DVD releases is a subject that has been ranted about by fans ad nauseam online the world over and deservedly so. Take into consideration the amount garbage that actually gets top shelf digital treatment while the films of Larraz, the obvious exception being Vampyres (1974) and possibly Black Candles (1982) continue to dwell in obscurity should be considered a crime against cinema. Its true that all of Larraz’s films should have official releases but if one film had to be singled out from the rest, that film would have to be Symptoms. Symptoms stands out in an already unique body of work as not only being one of the career highlights for Larraz, but also for being one of the absolute greatest horror films of the 1970’s.
Anne, a young woman from London decides to get away for a while at her best friend Helen’s (Angela Pleasence, daughter of Donald) countryside estate. Not long after arriving however, Anne begins to feel some very strange vibes from the house, the nosey groundskeeper Brady, not to mention Helen’s ill will towards him and a mysterious picture of a woman named Cora whom Helen claims is a “friend”. Anne becomes even more suspicious that there’s something she’s being kept in the dark about after hearing odd noises on a nightly basis and Helen’s behavior becoming more and more erratic making it apparent to Anne that there is something very wrong with her friend.
In many ways Symptoms is the film that Larraz was working towards his entire career. All the ideas and themes Larraz had introduced in previous films like Whirlpool (1970), Deviation (1971) and Scream and Die (1973) such as the isolated countryside setting, foreboding gothic atmosphere and an ominous sense of mystery are used to perfection here. In the hands of a lesser director these devices would come off on the screen as stock and cliché, but Larraz crafts a masterpiece with his unique way of putting these elements to use. What may surprise some viewers only familiar with Larraz’s more lets say “tantalizing” work, is the absence of graphic sex and violence from Symptoms. Granted there is a bit of a sexual component to the story but Symptoms is far from the visceral barrage of skin and sanguine that is Vampyres, its pure psychological horror and at times legitimately unnerving and unsettling. Larraz’s slow storytelling techniques are again brilliantly utilized as the film gets more and more disturbing the further it moves forward with Larraz never once loosening the tension, always letting it be known even very early on in the film that something isn’t quite right with what’s happing while at the same time allowing the film to retain its ambiguity. Perhaps the biggest strength of Symptoms is presence of Angela Pleasence, tailor made for this role possessing a face with the ability to convey sympathy one moment and in an instant become disturbing and threatening, oftentimes both at once.
Larraz may have always had a knack for getting the most out of his locations but with Symptoms he really outdid himself. The house, the forest that surrounds it, the nearby lake, these are not just mere locations and surroundings, they’re characters in their own right, Larraz gives them personality. One scene that always comes to mind is when Helen and Anne go for a canoe ride in the lake, Larraz constantly cuts back and forth between the tress, the water and Pleasence’s face, which goes back to the commanding presence of Pleasence (excuse the lame play on words) and Larraz’s ability to capture a mood by just aiming the camera at her face. Larraz’s trademark feeling of isolation is ever present, the countryside where the house resides may be beautiful from a visual standpoint but with it also comes an aura of unease along with the estate, which Larraz takes full advantage of. The estate itself is where the gothic elements come into play. At times the film even begins to feel like a classic haunted house story the way Larraz chose to light the interior night shots. The set decoration of a particularly important attic room is a definite highlight and it certainly didn’t hurt that the weather seemed be feeling a bit moody during these scenes and several others. What’s amazing is that even a DVD-R recorded from a worn PAL VHS with some pretty washed out colors cannot take any of the overwhelming atmosphere of the film away.
One of the more baffling aspects regarding the current status of Symptoms outside of Larraz fans and those with an interest in European cult cinema is the fact that not only did the film play at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, it happened to be the official British entry. Granted a lot of films have played at Cannes and surely many have gotten lost in the shuffle throughout the years but for a director such as Larraz to have had a film play at such a prestigious, probably the most prestigious film festival there is only for the film to, for lack of better terminology make a disappearing act after one broadcast years later on British television in 1983 is quite puzzling. The British Film Institute has rightfully taken notice and when they released a list of their 75 most wanted films believed to be missing in 2010, Symptoms made the list. Today the film is again, only seen via old VHS tapes or DVD-R’s sourced from said VHS tapes, the original prints for the film are MIA. Despite that it is encouraging to know that an institute like the BFI believes the film to be important enough to warrant a place on their most wanted list, as it really is a brilliant film that deserves to be seen and not just by genre fans. Top shelf psychological horror and Larraz’s magnum opus.