Review: Symptoms

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Blu-ray. BFI

The BFI’s Flipside label brings us a film which was previously thought more or less lost – murky VHS dupes taken from regional ITV broadcasts haunt YouTube and similar sites, but until recently, the original negative or decent quality prints had vanished.

I remember my local ITV region showing Symptoms on a Sunday night/Monday morning in about 1990, and I’m ashamed to say that, at the time, I was disappointed with the relative lack of female nudity (what with it being directed by Jose Larraz, a director who usually didn’t skimp on such things in films like Vampyres, Scream – And Die or Violation of the Bitch) – but that almost certainly says more about me than about the film. The lack of exploitation cinema elements does not prevent this from justifiably being the director’s most feted film.

The film opens with the always excellent Peter Vaughn – playing a rather unsavory character called Brady – in mid-congress with a young lady. The couple’s fevered fumblings and gropings are intercut with a nude female body floating in what one assumes to be a nearby lake. Clearly, the audience is meant to assume that Brady has disposed of his paramour after having had his wicked way with her.

Larraz is noted for his masterful mise en scene in relation to nature. It’s all over Vampyres and there are more lovely, yet slightly sinister, shots to aesthetically please the viewer in this film too (complemented by John Scott’s score) as two young women – Helen (Angela Pleasance) and Anne (Lorna Heilbron) arrive at a rather creepy-looking house. There’s a kind of Ghost Stories for Christmas – with a touch of Play for Today – feel developing here, as the film mixes a sense of social realism with the increasingly lurid horror theme. About eight minutes in, there’s a non-judgemental and non-exploitative hint of lesbianism, and the theme recurs later in the film, as the nervy, neurotic, increasingly neurotic Helen – imagines that Cora (Marie-Paul Mailleux) – the girl whose body we see floating in the lake at the beginning of the film – is paying her a seductive nocturnal visit.

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Symptoms blatantly – and effectively – takes its inspiration from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Larraz revels in sudden shock moments – after nearly giving me a heart attack with a scene involving a dying bird in a trap, the swine did it again about 26 minutes in, with a scene that is almost identical to a similar moment in Repulsion, and which establishes that Pleasance’s character has problems. I won’t dwell too much on how the narrative progresses – suffice to say that there is increasingly noticeable use of thunderstorms as a metaphorical commentary on Helen’s state of mind, and that the bodies pile up (corpses sitting in chairs a la Psycho, visitors getting bumped off), telephones and doorbells go unanswered,  bloodied knives are, rather absentmindedly, used to slice butter and the central character appears, at times, to be in the thrall of borderline personality disorder. Yes, we are indeed in Repulsion territory.  The final scene gives the viewer a strong hint as to why Cora was killed, in much the same way as Repulsion explains via a photograph  (nice shot of blood dripping onto a photograph of Cora earlier in the film, incidentally) how Catherine Deneuve’s character ended up a neurotic lunatic.

The film benefits hugely from a strong, sympathetic performance from Pleasance at the centre of the film – very much humanising her monster – and solid, assured direction from Larraz, suggesting that he could well have moved on to bigger and better things, given the breaks. It’s a dark, creepy and effective horror film, and impressive study of madness and a genuine work of art. Thank goodness that it has been rescued from the work of barely watchable bootlegs and given the care and attention that it deserves – including good disc supplementals like interviews with Pleasance and Heilbron, and a feature length documentary about Larraz.

JAMES MCBEAN

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