Symptoms – UK, 1974

Symptoms  is a 1974 British horror film directed by José Ramón Larraz (Rest in PiecesVampyresScream – and Die!) from a screenplay co-written with Stanley Miller. The movie stars Angela Pleasence, Peter Vaughan and Lorna Heilbron.

Having been working in Switzerland, Helen Ramsey (Angela Pleasance) is back in her family home, a large country house but seems nervous and unsettled. She has a guest, her friend Ann West (Lorna Heilbron). Another friend, Cora had apparently been also living in the house until recently.

Meanwhile, a gardener/odd-job man named Brady  lurks around the grounds. Voices are heard in the night and Helen becomes convinced that the attic holds the answer…

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Reviews:

” …the fantasy of lesbianism as a pathological phenomenon clearly signals that Larraz is presenting a decidedly male-anxiety scenario, a tendency confirmed in his compellingly erotic Vampyres (1974). As such, the picture is less about a lesbian relationship than a representation of a panicky attempt to exorcize – and thus to recognize – the very notion of female sexuality distinct from and irreducible to men’s definition of it.” Phil Hardy (editor), The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror

” …it’s a slow burner but John Scott’s excellent score and Larraz’s sparse but effective use of shock tactics (a face at a window; a briefly glimpsed figure at the edge of the frame that really shouldn’t be there) ensure a mounting sense of dread. Pleasence steals the show but is capably assisted by Lorna Heilbron…” Kevin Lyons, BFI

“Essentially a two-woman chamber drama disguised as an out-to-lunch slasher, Symptoms is a beautifully orchestrated excursion into the spook-filled, anxiety-ridden mind of a very damaged girl.” Joseph A. Ziemba, Bleeding Skull!

“The first hour is stomach churning tension and chilling atmosphere that will drag you white-knuckled to the last thirty minutes that is filled with some surprisingly vicious violence and bloodshed […] There is a haunting music score but Larraz uses the natural sounds of the house and surroundings to put the viewer on edge. Symptoms is not what you expect from José Ramón Larraz if all you know him from is his more shocking and popular films.” Greg Baty, Cinesploitation

“Unsettling from the opening frames and propelled steadily forward by a building sense of dark intrigue and peaking in scenes of genuinely screw-tightening tension, it’s an atmospherically shot, eerily scored and thoughtfully directed psychological thriller with an excellent central performance from an actress who, on the basis of this alone, made far too few films.” Cineoutsider

“Helen’s remote country estate looks damp and chilly and devoid of any bright colors, surrounded by fetid overgrowth that’s gloomy under perpetually drizzly, gray skies. Atmosphere and mood is everything in Symptoms, and Larraz’s marshaling and command of the naturalistic sights and sounds of this dreamy yet increasingly oppressive environment is masterful.” Paul Mavis, DVD Drive-In

“The women’s tentative lesbian liaison is intriguingly conveyed through fractured scraps of dialogue and elliptical ending, while Larraz directs a spookily poetic outsider’s eye on the English countryside, creating an atmosphere of unresolved tension that is slow-going but uniquely effective. And Angela Pleasance’s performance is an unusually striking one…” Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic, Reynolds and Hearn, 2004 (3rd edition)

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“This movie makes good use of sound, is quite creepy, and has a strong air of mystery to it. It’s a bit on the slow side, but as long as the mystery drives the story, it holds the attention. Unfortunately, a movie like this has to start delivering on some of the mystery, and sometimes the revelations aren’t quite as satisfying as the mystery itself, and such is the case here.” Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

” …like Arthur Machen making a movie, and it has the rambling, elusive and allusive feel of that writer’s best work. Totally English, yet not in the film sense, this has none of the blatancy seen in most British horror of the 1970s.” Andy Boot, Fragments of Fear, Creation Books, 1996

“What won me over aside from the gorgeous scenery and haunting atmosphere of the movie was the rather good performance from Angela Pleasance, who was not an actress who starred in a lot of movies, but her slightly awkward demeanor and haunted expressions really sold me on the inner struggle and madness of the character that made for a compelling watch.” Ken Kastenhuber, McBastard’s Mausoleum

“It is interesting in terms of its atmosphere of unease, although this also becomes overstrained and the film eventually becomes a vacuous, pseudo-arty offering. Frequently it appears to have been constructed around lengthy, meaningful pauses. What the twist ending means could be is anybody’s guess.” Richard Scheib, Moria

“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.” James McBean, The Reprobate

“The cinematography by Trevor Wrenn does a great job of helping to build the tension that basically explodes in the last half hour of the film […] Symptoms is a bit of a slow burn but it’s really well done. The performances from the two female leads coupled with the gorgeous camerawork and the eerie locations make this twisted thriller one well worth seeking out.” Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

“Aside from a couple of slashings, with bloodied subjective camera, not much happens but Larraz’s camera glides over the eerie lake and prowls through the rambling house to rev up the atmosphere until the climactic thunderstorm flashes and rattles Helen into a statue-like state.” Kim Newman, Ten Years of Terror, FAB Press, 2001

“…the finest British horror movie from a foreigner since Polanski’s Repulsion. The comparison is inevitable, because thematically the films have a good deal in common, charting the gradual mental dissolution of their spectral heroines. Symptoms imitates, but also improves on its original in a multiplicity of ways. The muted love affair between Pleasence and Lorna Heilbron is etched with enormous suggestiveness, and Larraz’s eye for visual detail is mesmerizing.” Time Out London

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“The plot of Symptoms is a little predictable by modern standards, it’s a thriller about infatuation and jealousy, themes that are used constantly in film and television. It doesn’t take long to unravel the mysteries of this film, but it does give it that impending doom feeling.” Christopher Stewart, UK Horror Scene

Choice dialogue:

Helen: “Sudden changes in the weather always upset me. I don’t know why.”

Helen: “Your ears are still full of soap. I can hear things that no-one else can.”

Main cast and characters:

  • Angela Pleasence as Helen Ramsey – Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible; The Godsend; From Beyond the Grave
  • Peter Vaughan as Brady – The Return short; The Pied PiperStraw DogsDie! Die! My Darling! 
  • Lorna Heilbron as Anne Weston – The Girl in a SwingThe Creeping Flesh
  • Nancy Nevinson as Hannah
  • Ronald O’Neil as John
  • Marie-Paule Mailleux as Cora Porter
  • Mike Grady [as Michael Grady] as Nick
  • Raymond Huntley as Burke – The Black Torment; The Mummy; The Ghost Train

Filming locations:

Harefield Grove, Harefield, London, England, UK
High Street, Pinner, Middlesex, England, UK
Pinewood Studios, Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, England, UK

Release:

Symptoms premiered at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival as the first official British entry. It was briefly released in the UK in 1976. It was shown on British television once in 1983 and then seemed lost for years until being released on Blu-ray and DVD by the BFI on 25 April 2016. A Blu-ray release in the USA by Mondo Macabro swiftly followed on May 10, 2016.

Trivia:

Jean Seberg was originally cast as Helen Ramsey but had to drop out of the production due to the fact that she was not a member of Equity the actor’s union; Angela Pleasence replaced her in the leading role. Pleasence described the film shoot as consisting of long days that required her to “get up at four in the morning, and not be home before eleven at night,” and noted that director Larraz was controlling on set.

The film was apparently also released as The Blood Virgin.

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