Sunday, 1 May 2016

DVD Review: Symptoms (BFI)

A good number of you may be familiar with Jose Larraz via his ex and blood romp "Vampyres", which featured Marianne Morris and Anulka as creatures of the night roaming the countryside in search of their prey.
"Symptoms" is a different story, being largely unseen in the UK during the four plus decades since its release.
Now, the British Film Institute has made this Euro Horror gem available for home viewing after finding the original negatives.
Larraz's film was chosen as the British entry for the Palme d'or for the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, ruffling a few feathers along the way, due to popular support for Ken Russell's "Mahler".
The reception in Cannes was largely positive, but "Symptoms" sank without trace, becoming a sleeping giant waiting to be re-born.

The film is set on an English country estate where Helen Ramsey (Angela Pleasence) has returned following a period of convalescence in Switzerland. Helen invites her friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to stay; the latter hoping for a peaceful holiday amidst beautiful surroundings.
Anne's first night is largely undisturbed, save for the sound of laughter which Helen claims not to have heard.
A photograph of a dark haired beauty who Helen identifies as Cora, and the sinister presence of odd job man Brady (Peter Vaughan)combine with a past tragedy and a future where "something is about to happen".
As a fierce storm and driving rain take hold, "Symptoms" becomes ever more disturbing, with apparitions appearing in mirrors and footsteps patrolling the attic, setting nerves on edge in fearful expectation.
As an exercise in psychological terror, "Symptoms" scores highly, charting a descent into madness and beyond to a most disconcerting degree.

There's much to enthuse over here, from both sides of the camera: a trio of fine central performances, with Pleasence and Heilbron playing well off each others chalk-and-cheese characters, while Vaughan recalls the lecherous locals of Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" with eyes that strip the very souls of his neighbours.
John Scott's eerie score is perfectly in tune with on-screen events, intensifying when the numerous slayings occur, with Herrmann-esque flourishes, while DOP Trevor Wrenn's photography - presided over by Larraz himself - captures haunted woods and gloomy interiors while showing the countryside in all its autumnal glory.
It's a team effort that pays rich dividends, taking up the baton from Roman Polanski's "Repulsion", to fashion a compelling account of what can happen when the red signs of madness take an icy grip.
"Symptoms" is fully deserving of the reverential treatment bestowed by this BFI release.

Image quality on my DVD screener will be a revelation to those who discovered the film via beat-up home video incarnations, while newcomers will be pleased by this restoration which delivers deliberately muted colours and strong detail.
The supplementary material begins with the 70s 37s documentary, "On Vampyres and Other Symptoms".
Recorded in 2011, this absorbing documentary looks at the director's formative years - his father told him the best lessons are learnt on the street - his talent for drawing comic books, and his late start in the world of filmmaking, which began after a meeting with Josef von Sternberg.
Larraz talks about his literary influences; his thoughts on life, death and life after death and gives his forthright opinion on the Cannes festival.
There's also a lovely scene where Marianne Morris and Anulka take to the stage to present Larraz with an award at a festival screening.

"From Barcelona To Tumbridge Wells: The Films of Jose Larraz".
A 24m 11s episode from the essential 'Eurotika' series.
Here, Larraz talks about his fascination with ancient legends; Thomas Owen's books and some of his own previous work.
Marianne Morris remembers her work in "Vampyres" and her initial reaction to the film, while Brian Smedley-Aston chats about his relationship with Larraz and some of the films they made together.
Some very strong clips from "Vampyres" are included, which should see you reaching for your own copy, or palcing an order.

An Interview with Angela Pleasence (9m 11s)
Angela recalls how she got the lead role in "Symptoms", going on to describe Larraz as a remarkable talent but someone she didn't always agree with.
We hear about an accident which occurred on the set; 19 hour shoots and her opinion on "Symptoms" which she saw just 3 days before doing this interview earlier in 2016.

An Interview with Lorna Heilbron (17m 11s)
Lorna talks about her time at drama school; her memories of Larraz (an intense and also charming man), and how she had to develop an inner stillness for her role.
Peter Cushing, "The Creeping Flesh" and her life after acting also figure in this interview.

An Interview with Brian Smedley-Aston (16m 20s)
Brian's early career in the cutting room; his contribution to Cammell and Roeg's "Performance"; his work with David Greene and his recollection of the 1974 Cannes Festival with its strong line-up round off this fascinating trio of interviews.
There's also an illustrated booklet with this dual format release, which features a beautifully written essay by Vanity Celis who delivers a persuasive overview of this film.
"Symptoms" is available to buy now, and destined to be on many best of 2016 home video lists.

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