Note: Mondo Macabro released two versions of Symptoms; one is a single-disc Blu-Ray, and one is a two-disc special edition. This review is for the one-disc version.
Jose Ramon Larraz’s Symptoms released in 1974 during the heyday of his career. It’s not his most well-known film – that would probably be Vampyres or Black Candles or even Whirlpool – and it doesn’t share the intense sexuality and eroticism of those features; but it is a moody, atmospheric horror film that hits all of the right gothic notes. Larraz’s screenplay, with Stanley Miller sharing co-writing credits, focuses on the madness of its characters, allowing the solitude of the setting room to evoke ghostly visitations while forcing the viewer to question its authenticity.
Larraz’s plot centers on Helen (Angela Pleasance), a lonesome spinster living in her large manor and suffering from an unmentioned sickness. Anne (Lorna Heilbron) comes to stay with Helen upon invitation, providing the viewer a window into this large estate and the odd happenings with it. Helen is obsessed with Cora (Marie-Paule Mailleux), a former resident of the estate who seems to have disappeared, and her attraction has her seeing Cora everywhere – in mirrors, in her bedroom at night, in the attic crawlspace. The creepy caretaker Brady (Peter Vaughan) doesn’t make Anne any more comfortable, normally skulking around the manor or taking boat rides out on the marsh.
Larraz’s narrative finds common ground with a lot of other gothic horror films, reminiscent of old haunted house films and Hammer horror pictures. In many ways, Larraz shares similarities to the other big horror exploitation directors of the ’70s, including Jess Franco and Paul Naschy, but unlike some of those directors’ pictures, Symptoms emphasizes its subtlety. The film moves slowly, first introducing its cast of characters – Helen and Anne, really, although Brady sneaks in here and there – and the house, which is an entity itself.
That introduction helps the audience gauge the direction of the film. As Anne experiences Helen’s outbursts, her erratic behavior becomes more noticeable. Her disheveled appearance signifies something more than a woman in some sort of emotional rut; she’s less in control of herself and her emotions. Anne is the viewer’s eye into Helen’s life, and Heilbron does a great job of playing the straight woman, reacting to the strange occurrences like Helen’s moaning in the night or Brady’s veiled warnings.
Symptoms continues to escalate, though, ultimately surprising the audience by killing off Anne about two-thirds of the way through the film. It’s a big moment that is frightfully tense; set during a storm, Anne makes her way up to the attic in Helen’s room, searching through the dimly lit crawlspace until she’s murdered by the lurking killer. It’s not Cora, who has been making ghoulish appearances to Helen repeatedly; it’s Helen herself, seemingly unaware of her violent actions.
From here, Symptoms falters slightly. Following Helen is much less interesting after it’s clear that her mental illness has caused the deaths of Anne and Cora because there’s a lack of mystery to it. But Pleasance is able to keep Helen from becoming too generic a character with her expressions and manic delivery. Her haunting calls of “Cora!” throughout the darkened estate, believing that the dead Cora is still flitting through the halls of the house, is scarier than any explicit moment Larraz could have included.
The big motivation reveal at the end of the film is unnecessary, but it does at least give some context to Helen’s obsession. Larraz does a little too much digging within the character’s psyche in the conclusion, wanting to elaborate on an ill individual; however, it’s the lack of motive that makes Helen so scary, and ending with her vision of Cora and Brady having an affair seems more like a way to work in Helen’s lesbianism than any meaningful exposition.
Symptoms is a dreary and eerie thriller, though, and it’s an enjoyable slow burn for those who love dark house horror films with heavy gothic overtones. Larraz’s film exudes all of the right signs: creepy, uncomfortable, and most often, humanistic; that’s a condition most horror directors would kill for.
Click next for the Blu-Ray review.