This long overdue restoration of Britain’s 1974 entry for Cannes’ Palme D’Or reveals a heady mix of horror and mystery that will reward the patient viewer. Directed and co-written by José Ramón Larraz, the film tells the story of Helen (Angela Pleasence), who has invited her friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to come with her to her house in the country.
Helen is determined that they have a peaceful break from the hustle and bustle of London, but the local handyman Brady (Peter Vaughn) won’t stop staring at her, and Anne becomes convinced that there’s someone else in the house. As Helen becomes more and more unstable, Anne moves towards the brink of a horrifying discovery.
Larraz keeps the audience guessing as to what exactly is going on for the bulk of the film, establishing a bewitching atmosphere that borders on folk horror while hinting at some terrible traumatic event in Helen’s past. There are bumps in the night, strange apparitions and an attic that obviously has plenty of secrets to give up, and the air of uncertainty is hugely impressive.
At the centre of it all is a brilliant performance from Pleasence as Helen, contributing beautifully to the air of uncertainty with a hypnotic and unreadable turn. She’s capably supported by Heilbron as the caring Anne, and Vaughn (Game Of Thrones) as the intrusive handyman who knows a lot more about Helen than Anne does.
The BFI’s lovely reissue contains two excellent documentaries about Larraz, one of which focuses on this and his next best-known film Vampyres, and fascinating interviews with Pleasence (who’s very open about what she had to endure at the hands of her director, including a potentially life-threatening injury), Heilbron and editor Brian Smedley-Aston.
Although there are problems with the pacing, and the slow-burn nature of it may put off some viewers, Symptoms is a beguiling tale of madness that makes excellent use of its location and star to create something that is unsettling but absolutely watchable. Seek it out.