Symptoms: BFI Flipside Review


Recovering from what some kind of breakdown, Helen (Angela Pleasence) returns at her family's estate in rural England. Staying alone in the large house, she invites her best friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to visit for a while. But soon things seem a little wrong...and what's happened to Helen's friend Cora, who hasn't been seen for a while? And what does sinister handyman Brady (Peter Vaughan) know that Anne doesn't?

Our film heritage is a very fragile one, so much so that a film which was made and first released during my lifetime (and I suspect during the lifetimes of many people reading this) could by 2013 be included in the British Film Institute's list of the 75 Most Wanted, films presumed lost as far as 35mm prints or original negatives went, which the BFI were looking to find, restore and make available again. And it wasn't even the most recent title on that list, which extended back to silent days. (The number one most wanted is Alfred Hitchcock's second feature from 1926, The Mountain Eagle, lost more or less since its original release and anyone who saw it then who is still alive is almost certainly now a centenarian. It's still AWOL, so check your attic.) A sorry state of affairs for a film which was the official British entry at Cannes in 1974. It didn't win: the Palme d'Or that year went to The Conversation. One of the interviewees on this disc, the film's editor Brian Smedley-Aston, says he wasn't aware of a British cinema release, but it did get one, in 1976 and in some countries went under the title The Blood Virgin. Since then, other than a couple of UK television showings in the 1980s, late at night on ITV, it went out of circulation, other than bootlegs based on video recordings of those TV broadcasts. And so in 2013 it was considered a lost film. But fortunately the negative was located and has been given a digital restoration, and this present dual-format release in the BFI Flipside line gives many of us our first chance to see the film.

Symptoms was one of two films shot in England in the same year by Spanish director José Ramón Larraz, the other being Vampyres. The director is billed as "Joseph Larraz" here. Symptoms is a slow-burner, for much of its running time a three-hander: the total credited cast numbers all of eight. But there are signs of wrongness early on. It's clear that Helen's feelings for her best friend are more than simply platonic, which Anne is unaware of. Or is she? Anne doesn't seem too fazed when Helen kisses her full on the mouth. Larraz and his co-writer Stanley Miller set a mood early on, and it's as a mood piece that the film functions best as, rather than a horror film. With its present-day (though clearly quite well-heeled) setting, Symptoms ties in with the grittier contemporary-set horror films being made in Britain at the time, by Pete Walker among others, as opposed to Hammer's period/historical settings. Horror it is, and when those elements kick in, it's clear we're in Repulsion mode. That's not an arbitrary comparison: Larraz in the staging of some of his scenes, references Polanski's film quite explicitly. Angela Pleasence, who won the role after the original choice (Jean Seberg, very intriguingly) was unable to make the film due to not having a UK Equity card, gives a fine performance, with Larraz giving her many wordless closeups which are more eloquent than dialogue would have been. Peter Vaughan is suitably sinister and Lorna Heilbron gives strong support.

Possibly too low-key for some horror fans, Symptoms may not be a rediscovered masterpiece. However, it's a good film and certainly justifies re-evaluation which this release gives us the opportunity to do.


The Disc

Symptoms is released by the BFI in their relaunched Flipside line. This is a dual-format edition, comprising a Blu-ray and a PAL DVD, both region-free. A checkdisc of the former was supplied for review. This release is a collaboration with Mondo Macabro, who will be issuing their own edition plus a limited one with additional extras. (I have neither to hand.)

The Blu-ray transfer is from the 2K restoration carried out by the Belgian Cinematek. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1 which the BFI says is the original theatrical ratio. This isn't the first time that BFI Flipside have released a commercially-made 35mm feature from the Sixties or Seventies, one or two decades into the widescreen era, in that ratio – see also That Kind of Girl, Permissive and the second feature on the latter release, Bread - and it's not the first time I've had doubts that that is correct. For one thing, almost none of the cinemas this would have been shown in would have been able in 1974 to show a film in Academy Ratio (actually 1.37:1) – well, okay, the cinema at Cannes would have been able to. Secondly, there are a few giveaways that this was shot open-matte (entirely feasible, then and now) but intended for a wider ratio. You can see shots where the camera moves to maintain composition and keep people and objects in frame which would be necessary in widescreen but which you don't see in films which are genuinely composed for Academy. Examples include a shot of Peter Vaughan at twenty-eight minutes (the start of chapter four) and the scene where Anne finds Helen sitting on the stairs eight minutes later. I would be interested to hear of a source for Academy being the intended ratio of Symptoms.

[UPDATE: Since this review was uploaded, I have had a reply from the disc producer at the BFI, which I reproduce here with his permission: "Most British cinemas would be able to screen Academy Ratio in the 1970s. 1.37:1 Academy Ratio was still adopted regularly in British Cinemas for archive feature films, 16mm features (Permissive for example), newreels, Children’s Film Foundation screenings and more... Projectionists were equipped with a variety of different aperture masks for different films: 1.37:1, 1.66:1 , 1.77:1, 1.85:1, 2.35:1 for Techniscope, and an anamorphic lens for 2.35:1 Cinema Scope. Also, 1.37:1 was the dominant aspect ratio in Turkey and Greece, where Symptoms was sold. The film has been presented on our release in Academy Ratio with the approval of the film's Editor Brian Smedley-Aston, who came in to the BFI to survey our master. Along with our partners on this release, Mondo Macabro, we also performed several tests with the film at different ratios. Even at 1.66:1, the film looked incorrectly framed at several points in the film."]

That said, there's nothing otherwise wrong with this transfer, from the original negative. Skin-tones have that rather heightened look common to quite a few films from the late Sixties to mid- Seventies (no doubt an effect of lighting and makeup styles of the time, not to mention the filmstock used). Some of the exterior scenes are intentionally sepulchral, but colours seem true and grain is present and filmlike.

The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 1.0, and is clear and well-balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available.

The extras begin with the trailer for Symptoms (2:04). Then there are three new interviews, with Angela Pleasence (9:35), Lorna Heilbron (17:55) and Brian Smedley-Aston (17:02). Pleasence's is the shortest and most devoted to the film at hand, with the actress talking about how she was cast when Jean Seberg was unable to play the role, Larraz's working methods and how a body double was used for her character's topless scene. Given that the only other person on screen for large parts of the film was Laura Heilbron, they happily got on well and remain friends to this day. Heilbron's interview is wider-ranging and also covers her 1973 filmThe Creeping Flesh for which she has fond memories of working with Peter Cushing. She also talks about her career and life change around the turn of the millennium which caused her to leave acting and to retrain as a psychiatrist. Brian Smedley-Aston's interview is also something of a career overview. The son of a film producer and the nephew of a well-known director (Frank Launder) it was perhaps inevitable that he would enter the film industry, which he did in the editing department. He is one of the two credited editors on Performance and talks about working with Donald Cammell, as the more logical less intuitive one of the partnership. He and Larraz became friends and Smedley-Aston served as producer on Vampyres, so he talks about their work together.

A much younger Smedley-Aston appears in From Tunbridge Wells: The Films of José Larraz (24:10), made in 1999 for Channel Four's Eurotika series and complete with "End of Part One" and "Part Two" captions which went either side of the commercial break. (It was codirected by Pete Tombs, who also conducted the interviews above.) Larraz, then still alive (he died in 2013 at the age of eighty-four), is interviewed, in English, as is Marianne Morris, one of the lead actresses in Vampyres.

On Vampyres and Other Symptoms (73:37) is a documentary made by Celia Novis in 2011 but unreleased. It follows Larraz as he visits the Sitges Festival to receive a lifetime achievement award for his work in the horror genre. He is also interviewed, in Spanish this time. Given that this documentary contains extended extracts from both Vampyres and Symptoms, it's no surprise that it doesn't really justify its feature length.

The BFI's booklet runs to eighteen pages, much of which is devoted to an essay, "Demons of the Mind: Contextualising José Ramón Larraz's Symptoms" by Vanity Celis, which discusses the film in the context of both the British horror films being made at the time and in Larraz's career. It doesn't come with the usual BFI spoiler warning, but I'd still suggest reading it after seeing the film. Also in the booklet is a reprint of David Pirie's 1976 review from Monthly Film Bulletin, film credits, notes and credits for the extras and transfer/restoration notes, plus stills.

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