Anne (Lorna Heilbron) just went through a bad breakup. Helen (Angela Pleasence) just got over a breakdown. Sounds like the setup for a wacky sitcom, right? Well, when these old friends get together for some relaxation in Helen’s creepy old dark country mansion, it’s anything but funny. Many questions abound, such as: where is Helen’s last housemate, Cora (Marie-Paule Mailleux)? What does Helen’s lurking handyman, Brady (Peter Vaughan), know about Cora’s absence, and what is he looking for in the lake? Would Anne be better off back in the city with her prying ex, John (Ronald O’Neil)? Is there a ghost in the house, or is Helen batshit crazy?
Symptoms, arguably José Ramón Larraz’s best work, is a slow burn reminiscent of the equally underrated Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Actually, I take that back. I think I’ve found in Symptoms the movie that is even more unfairly ignored than Jessica. Sent to Cannes as the official British selection for 1974 (the Spanish Larraz lived in the UK), the fate of Symptoms there reportedly suffered from the jealousy of some Brits in film who thought it an inappropriate choice compared to other films that came out that year. Larraz made many other films, but perhaps due to his disappointment, they all varied wildly in quality compared to this gem.
You already know that I will watch any old dark house film, but this one truly is on a par with few of the dozens I have seen. The secrets, the sounds, the shadows, the confusion, pity, disgust, fear, hope, and the literal and figurative storms evoked by this film have few equals. And who could be creepier than Angela Pleasence? She already scarred me for life in The Godsend, but to deal with her in a leading role, well, let me confess that I had to screen Symptoms in the daytime. I’ll not say any more, because I want you to see this one for yourself. This is not my usual facetious praise of crap, people, this is the obscure delight I search for every day. Not hard to find online for streaming, but let’s hope for a decent release as well. If the distributors know what’s good for them, they won’t leave scary Helen behind forever.