The BFI Flipside series has been created to uncover and re-release films from the past; whether overlooked, mis-appraised at the time of their release, or simply having passed into cinematic folklore. The latest in a line of unheralded classics is Symptoms, José Larraz’s 1974 melancholic gothic drama that was once considered lost altogether.
Helen (Pleasance) is a frail, sickly, almost ethereal young woman who has suffered from an unnamed illness for some time. To aid her recuperation, and accompanied by her newly single friend Anne (Heilborn), she retreats to her family’s country home. There Helen is plagued by strange visions and noises, perhaps within her head, perhaps not, and the seedy attentions of the estate’s handyman Brady (Vaughan).
There is a clear nod to Polanski in the way Larraz constructs his narrative. While not wholly original in its plotting, certainly by today’s horror standards, it is in the way Larraz draws you inevitably towards a finale that is interesting. From the outset you know something is amiss. A brooding, malevolent undercurrent flows through every scene; you’re aware that there is more to what you are watching, and are uncomfortably expectant, but so little is revealed for much of the film that you could argue virtually nothing really happens. This theme is signified by the belated introduction of Cora (Mailleux), a woman from Helen’s past who may or may not still inhabit the house.
An unexplained sound here, or a cryptic vision there – nothing is ever straightforward. That is, until Larraz wants it to be and the repressed violence you’ve been expecting is released in a flurried pique of passion.
Much of the intrigue in Symptoms comes from the lesbian courtship at the heart of Helen and Anne’s relationship. Mostly platonic, more so from Anne’s side, this is a burgeoning love that is never truly given clarity, and their subtle verbal and gestured exchanges are soon interrupted by Anne’s prim and proper ex-boyfriend. This dose of reality fuels a pathological reaction in Helen that changes the film’s pace and tone; the narrative now spinning out of control towards a darkly shocking conclusion.
As a psychological thriller, and one that follows a character’s descent into madness, Symptoms is not as impressive an example as Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. That said this is a film that warrants attention. Larraz understood how to draw every gothic breath from an English countryside rarely pictured so bleakly. Mysterious portent flows down from the trees, oozes from the estate’s lake, and seems to both influence and judge the films events. Symptoms may not be a classic, but as a previously lost rarity it is a film to be enjoyed.
SYMPTOMS (1974) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: JOSÉ RAMÓN LARRAZ / SCREENPLAY: JOSÉ RAMÓN LARRAZ, JOSEPH LARRZA, STANLEY MILLER, THOMAS OWEN / STARRING: ANGELA PLEASENCE, PETER VAUGHAN, LORNA HEILBRON, NANCY NEVINSON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW