Helen, who lives alone, invites her new friend Anne to stay with her in a lonely house, lost in the English countryside. The house, the woods that surround it and the figures fleetingly glimpsed through its windows, all seem imbued with a deep sense of mystery. Helen appears to be hiding a secret and the more Anne tries to uncover it, the deeper she is pulled into its dark heart.
SYMPTOMS was the official UK entry to the Cannes film festival in 1974 and was highly praised at the time. Subsequently the film sank into obscurity and was recently listed as one of the UK’s top 75 “lost films”. This release, taken from the original negative and fully restored, brings this quiet masterpiece back into view, where it can now be appreciated as one of the most under rated films of the 1970s.
eyelights: the cinematography. its moodiness. the score.
eyesores: the audio editing.
“I promise you, everything will be alright – very soon.”
‘Symptoms’ is a film that I bought sight unseen. When it was announced that it was being released on blu-ray, its description suggested an atmospheric descent into madness, something I quite like, but it also played up the fact that the movie was a rare find.
In other words, for me, it was a must-get!
If the picture seems unfamiliar, it’s no big surprise: though it was Britain’s entry at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, it has pretty much been relegated to obscurity since, having last been seen on British television in 1983. The prints had since been considered missing.
‘Symptoms’ takes us to a country estate, where Helen invites her friend Anne over to visit. But, upon their arrival, Helen begins to behave strangely, hearing sounds Anne doesn’t, claiming to be affected by the weather and refusing to be left alone by herself.
Though they aren’t especially close, Anne doesn’t leave Helen’s side, but she sees the young woman cave into herself, troubled by the nearby lake, and the house’s caretaker. Soon Anne thinks that she’s hearing laughter in the night, or loud moans filling the halls.
Is something happening in the house? Or is something happening to Anne?
Only Helen knows…
Frankly, I was quite taken with ‘Symptoms’. José Ramón Larraz, the director of ‘Vampyres’, really had flair for creating an atmosphere, setting the stage, allowing his audience to simmer in it slowly before he eventually let loose and revealed his secrets.
It’s the kind of plot that has been done to death, sure, and could probably be condensed into a thirty minutes episode, but the slow burn is what makes it so delicious; it makes you feel trapped in that house, insecure in the knowledge that something’s brewing.
Larraz also has an eye for beautiful shots. I adore the look of the film, filled with so much gorgeous cinematography (all shot in 4:3); everything looks real (unlike modern films, which amp the colour and contrast), making it almost tangible. It would be stunning in 3D.
The music is equally noteworthy. John Scott’s score begins in a minimalistic, atmospheric fashion and grows more dramatic as we sink deeper into the picture’s mystery. Unfortunately, the audio is edited abruptly in some areas, with music cues dropping out between scenes.
I’m not sure why – that kind of sloppiness could easily be avoided.
Contributing greatly to the atmosphere is Angela Pleasence’s performance as Helen. She plays it subtle, making her character seem slightly off most of the time, as though something were stirring inside, slowly becoming unhinged. It’s a pretty unsettling turn.
The rest of the cast, minimal though it may be, is also quite believable, but it’s Pleasance who steals the show. She even looks the part, her features highlighted in such a way as to make her appear unusual and seemingly frail. One can’t help but wonder about her.
By the time that everything unravels, we’re completely gripped by the madness on screen. While none of it is especially scary or suspenseful, come the third act we’re disturbed enough to sit transfixed, frozen with terror as all manners of tragedy assail the characters.
Don’t get me wrong: ‘Symptoms’ isn’t a lost masterpiece, but it’s an incredibly effective slice of psychological horror that’s superior to its peers. It’s no small wonder that it was chosen as an official entry for Cannes, and it’s a damned shame that it’s since been forgotten.
It truly is a picture worth savouring.
Date of viewing: September 13, 2016