Symptoms (1974)

If you’re gonna go crazy, this is the way to do it.

Harps pluck and a forest sways. Women kiss and a rain begins. Knives slit and a river heaves. With that, director José Ramón Larraz finally breaks through and succeeds. Wholly and undoubtedly. Throughout various adventures in elegant 1970s eroto-sleaze (Vampyres, The House That Vanished) and transient 1980s slash-trashin’ (Rest In Pieces, Edge Of The Axe), Larraz made it a point to craft exotic films that were presently gratifying, but stubbornly trivial. And sometimes exhausting. Which was fine by me. Even when I slept, I smiled.

Tonight, however, there was no sleep. Only smiles.

Symptoms is a deviation from Larraz’s filmography — it’s less Jesus Franco and more Ingmar Bergman. On average, this type of artistic digression yields captivation, but not triumph. Paul McCartney’s McCartney II and Philip Roth’s Our Gang are fine examples. But when Larraz snubs his usual methods by swapping overt sleaze for solemn development, something remarkable happens — he ends up with an honest-to-god horror film. A great one. One that isn’t ruled by deviant kinks, but guided by them. Essentially a two-woman chamber drama disguised as an out-to-lunch slasher, Symptoms is a beautifully orchestrated excursion into the spook-filled, anxiety-ridden mind of a very damaged woman. And to think — there’s only one hump-up-against-a-tree scene in the whole thing.

Helen (Angela “Daughter of Donald” Pleasance) occupies a dreary mansion in the middle of the woods. Anne, her friend, drops by for an extended visit. Both women are gangly, striking, and have an eye for fetching sweaters. While Helen practices diary writing and masturbation techniques, Anne works on some sort of book. A neighbor named Brady chops wood and stares at the ladies. Thunderstorms let loose. Following a routine bike ride, Helen reveals, “I can hear things nobody else can.” Is she crazed? What’s Brady doing in his little rowboat? And furthermore, who has the knife? Don’t go in the attic.

By all indications, this film should not work. It’s over 90 minutes. Thrills are reserved for the last half. Nothing is truly clarified, and the script’s intricacies reveal themselves organically. All that’s left is the anticipation, and it takes a rare sense of savvy to thrive on that and that alone. Exactly.

Stuck in an autumn timelessness, the sparse ‘n’ delicate demeanor of Symptoms is a lovely complement for its dignified creeps. Things are so tightly wound across the board (performances, compositions, edits) that slight gestures are free to flourish and impact. The film builds, grows, and feeds off of nothing but its own tension. Faucet leaks serve as scare tactics. An eyebrow lift reveals character traits. A kiss feels like a tidal wave. By the time the gritty, stylized bloodshed hits, you’re tied in knots by everything that came before. And it feels great — just the way a horror film (with only one hump-up-against-a-tree scene) should.

José Ramón Larraz breaks from grandma incest, lesbian vamps, and broken-down pacing, then promptly crafts a casual art-horror triumph. That’s Symptoms. It’s an ideal counterpart for cool October evenings. And I think you’ll like it.

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