Catalan filmmaker José Ramón Larraz’s psychological horror film Symptoms – a UK production – was the British entry at the Cannes Film Festival in 1974. Despite this, the film was considered all but lost for decades: despite some rare television screenings early on and rough bootlegs and pirated copies that circulated through informal channels, it was big news when it was announced that exhaustive efforts by Mondo Macabro and the British Film Institute had paid off with a restored version of the film having been made from original prints.1

Symptoms is the story of Helen Ramsey, brought to life by the weirdly magnetic Angela Pleasence (daughter of Donald) who – had the film not vanished – should have, based on this performance alone, had a career as celebrated and as lengthy as that of her father. 2 Helen has invited her friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) from London to stay with her at her isolated country mansion, despite it being run-down and Helen only occupying a few of its numerous rooms. Helen’s psychological instability becomes increasingly apparent to Anne, but her concern about her friend’s wellbeing gives way to broader questions that plague her about the strange behaviour of Helen’s staff, strange noises in the house and unanswered questions about a previous house guest.

Larraz (working under the anglicised name Joseph Larraz) released Symptoms and the film for which is arguably the most famous, lesbian vampire classic Vampyres, in the same year. 3 As Richard Scheib has noted, both films share a significant overlap in their stories of women isolated in country estates that become the sites of grisly murders.4 Larraz was renowned primarily for softcore romps and horror movies, the two overlapping in films like Vampyres and Black Candles (1982). Born in Barcelona, he began his career working in comics and began writing and directing when he moved to the United Kingdom. His feature debut was the erotic thriller Whirlpool in 1970, starring frequent collaborator Karl Lanchbury and featuring a killer score by Italian soundtrack legend Stelvio Cipriani. Following this were the horror movies Deviation (1971), La muerte incierta (The Uncertain Death, 1973) and 1973’s The House that Vanished (the latter’s poster famously mimicking that of Wes Craven’s exploitation hit from the previous year, The Last House on the Left).

But 1974 was the year that brought Larraz his greatest success with Vampyres, and also brought him the closest to mainstream legitimacy with Symptoms. Although shot at regular Hammer horror location Oakley Court in Berkshire, Vampyres has a dreamy, otherwordly quality that, with the film’s tale of two vampire lesbians (Anulka Dziubinska and Marianne Morris) on a carnivalesque sex-and-murder spree, renders it closer to the films of Jean Rollin than Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy. While sharing a similar isolated rural location, a focus on two women and the intersection of sex and death, the equally ethereal Symptoms is an altogether different kind of film. Many critics have compared it to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) – which, with its shared focus on the psychosexual, murderous collapse of a female protagonist, makes sense – but these movies are part of a much broader category concerning violent women made around this same period, including Images (Robert Altman, 1972), Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1972), and Il profumo della signora in nero (The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Francesco Barilli, 1974).5

While these two films by Larraz are intoxicating in their own ways, Symptoms seems to amplify its sense of suffocation, of desperation, and its sense of doomed inevitability. Partially, this veneer of specialness may simply stem from the fact that it was a cult-film holy grail for so long, its mystique as a supposedly ‘lost’ film adding a degree of further intensity to watching it after its much-anticipated restoration and exhibition revival.

Much of the film itself, however, adds to its pervasive ambience of eerie discombobulation: from its opening moments, Symptoms is clearly from another time, with its cane furniture and kaftans, its lush rural setting drenched less with blood than a steady parade of wafting, translucent white lace curtains. The quick, distant clip of its protagonist’s voice-over as she writes in her diary, “I have a feeling something is about to happen, something final, in which I will be involved” invokes the presence of a living ghost, someone there with profound future sight, and yet not fully present. We are bound to Helen as our central storyteller, but we know she’s holding back, stunted, busted up. She speaks of headaches and of feeling out of sorts: “Sudden changes in the weather always upset me,” she tells Ann. “I don’t know why.” Anne offers to buy her painkillers from town, but Helen declinec. She sits on the floor at Anne’s feet on their first night after dinner, clutching an old rag doll in an increasingly symbolic regression.

Throughout the film, glimpses into both Helen and Anne’s pasts come to the fore: Anne is recovering from a broken heart, but, during her stay with Helen, her lover returns in an attempt to rebuild their relationship. Anne, notably, hides this from Helen, and with good reason: Helen’s growing obsession with her friend develops into an explicit sexual jealousy, prompting flashbacks to her mysteriously departed former friend and house guest Cora (played by Larraz’s then-girlfriend Marie-Paule Mailleux) and the latter’s relationship with Helen’s nemesis, her “odd-job man”, Brady (Peter Vaughan).

Symptoms is not a murder mystery, although a related question – what happened to Cora? – riddles it throughout. Helen’s ‘guilt’ is hardly a secret, and a moment early in the film where she flashes a bread knife meaningfully towards Anne is a confirmation that, yes, this is all moving in an inevitable direction.

It is precisely this sense of inevitability that renders Symptoms less a pure ‘horror’ or ‘thriller’ movie per se than something more closely aligned to tragedy: Helen knows she needs help (she asks for it frequently), but help does not arrive until it is too late. She is a woman out of sorts, out of time, and in what Larraz and Pleasence reveal between them to be an excruciating amount of emotional and psychological pain. Helen is no fool, and, despite her illness, she can read the signs – the symptoms of the film’s title – and yet, it’s not enough. She is irretrievably untethered, as lost as the film itself was believed to be for so many years.

Acknowledgement:

The author wishes to thank Stacy Livitsanis for introducing her to this film.

Symptoms (1974 United Kingdom 91 minutes)

Prod Co: Finiton Productions Prod: Jean L. Dupuis Dir: José Ramón Larraz (as Joseph Larraz) Scr: José Ramón Larraz, Stanley Miller Phot: Trevor Wrenn Ed: Brian Smedley-Aston Mus: John Scott

Cast: Angela Pleasence, Lorna Heilbron, Peter Vaughan

Endnotes:

  1. For the Mondo Macabro press release, see: Chris Coffel, “Lost Euro-Horror Film Symptoms Unearthed by Mondo Macabro! (Exclusive)”, Bloody Disgusting, 4 February 2016, http://bloody-disgusting.com/news/3378667/lost-euro-horror-film-symptoms-unearthed-mondo-macabro-exclusive/. For the BFI announcement, see: Josephine Botting, “Symptoms: The Lost Classic of 70s Horror Is Back”, BFI, 7 November 2016, http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/symptoms-lost-classic-70s-horror-back.
  2. Helen was originally cast with Jean Seberg in the role, but issues with her Actors Equity membership lead to recasting.
  3. He also wrote and directed a third film released in 1974, the erotic horror film Emma, puertas oscuras.
  4. Richard Scheib, “Symptoms aka The Blood Virgin“, Moria: Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review, no date, http://moria.co.nz/horror/symptoms.htm.
  5. Kier-La Janisses’s book House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (Godalming: FAB Press, 2012) is an essential, exhaustive volume on this subject.

About The Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas has published five books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with a particular focus on gender politics. Her books include Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Film: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2014), a 2016 monograph on Dario Argento’s Suspiria (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series), a 2017 book on Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 as part of Wallflower/Columbia University Press’s Cultographies series, and in 2018, a book on Robert Harmon's 1986 film The Hitcher, published by Arrow Books. She is currently working on books including 1000 Women in Horror, a book on art and intertextuality in giallo cinema, and co-editing a collection about the film work of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press's ReFocus series. Alexandra was an editor at Senses of Cinema until March 2018.