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In 1974 three of the best horror films ever to be made in Great Britain were produced. What's unusual about this is that all three were directed by emigré Spaniards – Jorg Grau's marvellous zombie film THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE (known as LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE in the US and on DVD) is probably the best known, and most highly regarded of the three. However, the other two films are equally impressive and deserving of classic status within the genre – they are VAMPYRES and SYMPTOMS, both directed by José Ramon Larraz. The two films couldn't be more different in tone and it's remarkable that the same man was responsible for both films within such a short space of time. Both share a common main theme – lesbianism – but whilst the better known VAMPYRES is surprisingly explicit for its time, SYMPTOMS is extremely restrained and subtle.
Helen Ramsey (Angela Pleasance) arrives back from Switzerland to her family home, a large old-fashioned country house, accompanied by a friend, Ann West (Lorna Heilbron). It quickly becomes clear that Helen suffers from a nervous disposition, and she mentions having spent time convalescing. Helen's hearing is very sharp, and she burns paper doll chains on the fire to "calm her nerves". It becomes apparent that she had earlier been living in the house with another friend, Cora, but she isn't keen to talk about her. There is an odd-job man who lives in the grounds of the house called Brady (Peter Vaughan), and it's clear that Helen has an intense dislike of him. At night both Helen and Ann hear voices in the house, and Helen seems convinced that there is something in the attic, a trap door to which is in the ceiling in a corner of her room. One night Ann hears moaning from Helen's room; she goes to investigate and climbs the steps to the attic, where she finds Cora's suitcases
It's difficult to say much more about the plot without giving the rest of the story away. It's really a very simple story, and very little actually happens until the last 15 minutes or so of the film, but it's the way that Larraz films it that keeps the viewer entertained. The film is packed with gorgeous photography of the English countryside, all autumn leaves and dappled sunlight. The central performances are outstanding, especially Angela (daughter of Donald) Pleasence, who is one of the strangest looking women, with her piercing eyes, high cheekbones and wispy hair, not to mention her unusual voice. She is perfect in the role of the neurotic Helen, and is really the force that holds the film together. Lorna Heilbron is also excellent as Ann, whilst Peter Vaughan is great in the part of the insidious, lecherous, creepy odd job man. In the best tradition of ghost stories, even the smallest events and details seem to be mysteriously threatening, and Larraz imbues the whole film with an unsettling aura of mystery and half-concealed secrets. The stilted, formal dialogue between the girls makes their relationship seem constantly on a knife edge, although they are outwardly great friends, and the little subtle tricks and hints Larraz uses to make it clear that all is not as it should be are handled with consummate skill.
Former comic book artist and fashion photographer Larraz had previously been responsible for three minor films, WHIRLPOOL (1969), DEVIATION (1971) and SCREAM & DIE (1973, aka THE HOUSE THAT VANISHED), all of which had been at least partly filmed in Great Britain. As a result of these ties, Larraz was able to get funding for SYMPTOMS, which, amazingly, was selected as the 1974 British entry to the Cannes film festival. Despite the film being praised by Jack Nicholson, it was an unpopular move with other British directors, who believed Ken Russel's MAHLER should have been selected. After Cannes, the film languished for two years, before finally being released in 1976. SYMPTOMS boasts some excellent editing by Brian Smedley-Aston, who would go on to produce Larraz's next film, VAMPYRES, not to mention the infamous video nasty EXPOSÉ (1976, aka THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL).
Unfortunately, most of Larraz's films have remained frustratingly difficult to obtain. His first film, WHIRLPOOL, was thought lost until very recently (a time-coded print has now turned up via a grey market US company) whilst DEVIATION was only ever available on an ultra-rare (and very grainy) VHS released by Marquis Video (but labelled as Prima Film) in Canada long ago. SCREAM & DIE has been more widely available, though it has still not received a DVD release. SYMPTOMS did receive small circulation on VHS, but has always been very hard to find, even on the bootleg market. Indeed, VAMPYRES is the only early Larraz film to currently be available on DVD. Unfortunately, after the double whammy of SYMPTOMS and VAMPYRES in 1974, Larraz struggled to regain his edge, and only the interesting VIOLATION OF THE BITCH (1978) is really notable in his later career, and though his 1981 sexploitation film BLACK CANDLES did receive some notoriety, it's unfortunately one of his worst films.