Angela Pleasence Exhibits Madness and Love in 'Symptoms'

by Imran Khan

25 August 2016

Symptoms reaches for a different sort of horror, the kind that festers in the obsessive minds of the romantically distraught.
Angela Pleasence and Peter Vaughan in Symptoms 
cover art

Symptoms

Director: José Ramón Larraz
Cast: Angela Pleasence, Lorna Heilbron

US DVD: 10 May 2016

Autumnal, moody and atmospheric, José Ramón Larraz’s gothic chiller, Symptoms, is the kind of slow-burner that populated much of the European horror market of the ‘70s (lurking terror presented in lengthy pans and slow zooms). Considered by many to be a “lost” film (recently found and now pressed onto disc by Mondo Macabro), this British-Belgian effort is notable for its British leading star, a then young and inexperienced Angela Pleasence, known to many as the daughter of actor Donald, the far more prolific Pleasence.

Nominated in 1974 for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the film quickly sank into obscurity, resurfacing occasionally right around the time the VHS market picked up in the ‘80s. Since then, the film has slipped through the cracks of even some of the more observant film-goers, revived only somewhat through bootlegged copies. Believed to have been missing for many years, the original film print was found and eventually restored.

Larraz’s efforts were dubious at times, ventures into exploitation that, though handsomely filmed, were written off by some of the more well-regarded critics in his day. Symptoms, however, proves that the director certainly understood tone, subtlety and pacing, and managed a rather convincing character drama sketched with great care.

Symptoms is the story of Helen (Pleasence), a shy, young woman who invites a friend, Anne (Lorna Heilbron) over to her estate in the countryside. Helen is clearly attracted to Anne and while Anne is already attached to a man named John (Ronald O’Neill), there is a strong suggestion that the attraction is mutual.

It appears that something in Helen’s past has troubled her, left her shaken. Anne isn’t sure what it is, until she learns of Cora, a past friend—possibly lover—of Helen’s who no longer seems to be in her life. Helen’s behavior begins to change significantly when one day, out on a stroll through the woods, they see Grady, the local handyman. Helen has a near hatred for him that Anne cannot figure out.

Later, John at some point stops by and urges Anne to go back with him. But Anne insists that Helen is distraught and needs her. She decides to stay and, before long, she discovers some pretty sinister truths about the household and Helen herself. What are those strange noises Helen is always complaining about–the ones Anne never seems to hear? Why is Grady always creeping around the premises, asking personal questions? Just what is Helen hiding in her attic? Does it have anything to do with the mysterious Cora?

Those aching for a brutal slash-and-burn thriller are sure to be disappointed. There are indeed well-placed jump-scares sporadically placed throughout, but Symptoms reaches for a different sort of horror, the kind that festers in the obsessive minds of the romantically distraught. Much of the tension in the story is generated by Pleasence, whose doe-eyed, moon-faced beauty already betrays a slightly off-kilter truth about her wounded character. Pleasence works up the hysterical pitch slowly, winding around the spool of drama as tightly as she can while her mind continues to unravel. Supporting characters seem more like the instigators of her rising madness; they are there to provoke, rather unwittingly, the dormant horror embodied in the sole performance of the leading lady.

Larraz reveals an admirable level of restraint here and, in this approximation of horror and drama, he articulates a shimmering elegance filled with tree-lined nature paths, placid ponds and wind-swept corridors. It’s like a Brontë novel restructured as a Hitchcock film; at every moment there is the small but conscientious dropping of a clue that points toward the film’s inevitable conclusion.

Symptoms is not firmly rooted in the horror tradition. It is more of a character study which explores the frightening descent into obsession that feels a lot more earnest than the sensationalism of horror usually allows for. Larraz’s technique in framing shots is an effort to behold here; many of his shots are designed like the baroque tragedies of Caravaggio paintings, where the horror and madness can be seen stirring just beneath the impossible beauty.

Mondo Macabro has done a remarkable job of the Blu-ray transfer here. For a lost film whose source print was unaccounted for all these years, Symptoms is brilliantly restored in crisp, clean colors that are rich, earthy and warm like the autumn season depicted in the story. While a certain amount of grain is to be expected for a film this old, the image is razor-sharp; it only makes the film a more absorbing watch. Dialogue and sound is very clear and comes through with no distortion.

Mondo Macabro goes an extra mile with some very impressive supplements. Included are interviews with actress Pleasence, who reveals that the original choice for Helen was American actress Jean Seberg. There are also interviews with supporting actress Heilbron, as well as the producer and the director. Other features round out the package; these include a feature called On Vampyres and Other Symptoms: The Films of Celia Novis and another one called From Barcelona… to Tunbridge Wells: The Films of José Ramón Larraz.

Symptoms

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