(A.k.a. THE BLOOD VIRGIN)
Jose Ramon Larraz is best-known on these shores for his erotic vampire epic VAMPYRES. His finest film is 1974's SYMPTOMS. It was selected as the official British Palme d'Or entry at that year's Cannes Film Festival (THE CONVERSATION won the competition) but has since passed a lot of people by due its lack of legitimate availability. Resigned to crappy bootleg copies floating around over the decades, it's a film that has never been treated with the respect it so richly deserves. Until now.
But more on this fabulous package later. First, the film...
"Last night, I dreamt that they had returned. They were here again - just like in other dreams. But this time it was all confused. I have a feeling that something is about to happen. Something final, in which I will be involved..." These opening lines are narrated by demure Helen (Angela Pleasence), hinting at her fragile mental state as she sits writing a letter to old pal Anne (Lorna Heilbron).
Helen, we learn, has recently returned to England after working as a translator in Switzerland. She's inherited a family mansion in the countryside and has invited Anne to stay for a while. As they settle in to the grand abode, we realise that the friendship is somewhat strained - at least in part because Helen feels that Anne forgot about her while she was away.
Helen's a little peculiar. Wide-eyed and birdlike in features, she keeps a photo of a friend she's never mentioned before - Cora - on display while making curious conversations about storms, owls and how she burns herbs found in the nearby woods as incense.
Her life is clearly a lonely one, seemingly by design. The only regular contact she enjoys when staying at the manor house is the chemist (Raymond Huntley in his final role) she visits in the nearest village, a short drive away. She goes there for tablets to help keep her recurring headaches at bay...
As Anne's stay extends, both women become aware of they believe are voices coming from within the house during the night. And then there's the presence of Helen's burly handyman Brady (Peter Vaughan) - established as a ladies' man right from the start, and perceived as a sexual threat by the increasingly odd Helen.
Brady's shocking discovery ... Anne's incremental sense of something being seriously amiss ... a couple of shockingly violent set-pieces ... a central puzzle which Larraz patiently leaves obscured until the very end ... SYMPTOMS is a film of expert subtleties that rewards the patient viewer.
It's a slow-burning psychological study with elements of modern gothic horror, unfolding with unforced menace. Pleasence (daughter of Donald, of course) is perfectly cast, her unconventionally appealing looks marrying with an understated delicateness which she never overplays. Heilbron is a perfect match opposite her, the more confident and worldly pal who shares our growing concerns for both her friend's psychiatric wellbeing and her own safety. A hint of lesbian yearning is employed intelligently by Larraz; the madness-inducing sexual repression we become aware of may well hark back brazenly to Roman Polanski's REPULSION, but stylistic echoes of Robert Altman's IMAGES are also agreeably present.
Visually the film is gorgeous. Larraz finds ways to muster beauty from the simplest of images: trees blowing in the wind, clouds forming in the sky, rain bouncing off the surface of a lake, and so on. Dimly lit for maximum atmosphere, the film broods from the off. It moves at a considered pace, Larraz allowing ample space for Trevor Wrenn's ravishing cinematography to get under the skin. It's all perfectly complemented by John Scott's score, at once melancholic and insidious.
And it's scary, too.
Long considered lost, the original negatives were finally located in 2014 by a vaults manager at Deluxe. This has allowed for an attentive 2k restoration to take place. The fruits of that labour can now be savoured on this sterling dual-format package from the BFI's much-lauded Flipside brand.
We were sent a copy of the dual-layer, 50gb blu-ray disc to review.
The film is presented as an MPEG4-AVC file in full 1080p HD. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (ignore the online hoo-hah from folk claiming it should be in widescreen - this is how the original negatives presented the film, and the framing is meticulous throughout), the film has been restored by the Belgian Cinematek while additional grading has been undertaken by the BFI.
The results are astonishing. A very fine layer of natural grain ensures that the transfer retains an authentic filmic texture, while the levels of clarity and fine detail when compared against my old bootleg DVD copy is simply staggering: it was like watching the film for the first time again. Intricate details like facial contours and heavy rainfall are breath-taking in their renewed visibility. There's an autumnal visual tone to the film which results in a slightly dark, soft look - but that's evidently intentional. Blacks are solid throughout, the print is clean, colours are robust and true, flesh tones are accurate ... Truly, this exceeds all expectations. For overseas readers, my understanding is that Mondo Macabro are utilising the same transfer.
English PCM mono audio has been cleaned up and proffers a highly reliable, consistent soundtrack as a result. Optional English subtitles are at hand for the hard-of-hearing. These are well-written and easily readable at all times.
The disc opens to a static main menu page. There is no scene selection menu; however the film can be navigated through with your remote handset by way of 10 chapters. Though why you'd wish to race through something this beautiful is beyond me.
A wealth of intriguing bonus material begins with the superb 73-minute documentary "Vampyres and Other Symptoms". This 2011 effort from Celia Novis is really something special. Not only is it beautifully considered and carefully edited, it's finely scored and - most importantly - features great interview footage with late director Larraz. It's an artily made film, which may alienate some (it's in no rush to dissect its subject's psyche and plays out in a decidedly non-linear fashion) but ultimately emerges as being hugely rewarding. We get many scenes from Larraz's films (all VHS quality I'm afraid), though the main focus of this beguiling 1.33:1 feature is his two best-known films: VAMPYRES and SYMPTOMS.
Still, along the way we learn about the late Spanish director's upbringing, his formative years in the filmmaking business, are privy to fascinating (narrated) screenplay excerpts and are treated to plenty of explanatory sepia-tinted illustrations which help fill the narrative gaps. It's quite a unique approach to documenting a filmmaker, and I found the whole thing thoroughly charming.
For those who do find the above a little too abstract in style, "From Barcelona ... to Tunbridge Wells" is a far more conventional assessment of the director's great career. It's a 24-minute episode of the much-missed "Eurotika!" series, stemming from 1999. Directed by Andy Starke and Pete Tombs, it's a wonderful mix of choice clips and interviews. Larraz speaks English here (he speaks Spanish in the above documentary, albeit we have the benefit of burned-in subtitles) and comes across really well. We also get Marianne Morris and Brian Smedley-Aston, both of whom offer great recollections. VAMPYRES understandably dominates here too, but we're also treated to some decent coverage on THE COMING OF SIN and BLACK CANDLES.
Next up is a tantalising 9-minute interview with Pleasence. She begins by revealing she was only cast because Larraz's preferred actress, Jean Seberg, was unavailable. Injuries on set, freezing shooting conditions, the capacity to dredge up pent-up emotions while acting ... what a great addition to the disc this is.
Heilbron is also interviewed in a new 18-minute featurette. She talks us through her beginnings in the acting profession, her sister's influence, her own philosophies on the art and - naturally - her experience on SYMPTOMS.
A 17-minute interview with Smedley-Aston is even more fascinating. He looks great, when measuring his appearance here against the aforementioned 1999 featurette. He remains an articulate, witty man who's blessed with a great memory. It's priceless stuff, as he talks through his career while sitting in a very comfy-looking cinema seat. From PERFORMANCE and TOM JONES to HARDCORE and BLUE SUNSHINE, this guy's been a star over the decades: this interview is a privilege to watch.
The film's original 2-minute trailer is extremely welcome. It looks and sounds fine, and conveys the movie's paranoid atmosphere really well.
The trailer and interviews are presented in HD; the archive featurettes come in standard definition.
Capping things off is a beautiful 24-page colour booklet. As well as the usual film credits and acknowledgements, we get a great new essay from festival programmer Vanity Celis which does a good job of contextualising SYMPTOMS among Larraz's oeuvre. An archive review from a 1976 edition of Monthly Film Bulletin sees its author, David Pirie, remarking that the film is "unusually sophisticated for genre cinema". Well-placed black-and-white stills grace the booklet throughout.
Also included in this set, but not made available for the purpose of this review, is a DVD copy of the film and extras.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Bfi|
|see main review|