So I want to talk about a giallo movie. In the genre's native Italy, "giallo" is just used to describe any movie with a bit of gore in it, but in the same way that the Japanese word for "comic book" means something very particular outside of Japan, giallo here means a specific sort of movie, namely one wherein women end up in terrible bloody danger, psychologically and physically. I'm talking about films like Suspiria here. Repulsion. Black Swan. These movies are almost always highly emotionally charged. Although often artsy and meticulously constructed, they usually include over-the-top violence and gore (like the bit in Suspiria where there's this girl running away from a killer and she falls through a window that erupts into glassy shards and then ten feet into a room that is entirely! full! of barbed wire!) and they are often homoerotic in a soft-focus, voyeuristic sort of a way. And of course, it goes without saying that these films are almost always made by straight men.
I prefer myself to call these films Stabby Movies, because a lot of stabbing seems to happen in films like this. And in the field of Stabby Movies, there's none more stabby than Symptoms.
|There's a lot of golden Autumn in this film.|
Helen (voice over): 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.Roll credits. Helen (Angela Pleasence) has been away in Switzerland, working she says. It becomes apparent that she has spent a deal of time convalescing from an unnamed illness. She invites her friend Anna (Lorna Heilbron) to come and stay with her in her old country house, an inheritance of some sort. Anna herself is recovering from a heartbreak, and initially finds the setting delightful. But Helen is brittle and sensitive.
|Helen and Anna.|
Mention is made another friend of Helen's, Cora (the dark-haired woman), who used to come here too, and Helen is weirdly evasive about her. Anna hears laughs and screams at night, and the wild stares of Brady the groundskeeper (Peter Vaughan) are unsettling, his implied capacity for violence intimidating. Both Helen and Brady look at Anna in the same way.
|Helen's haunting gaze.|
|Caught by surprise.|
|Don't go into the attic, Anna.|
The lake has a real sense of danger to it, of dread. I couldn't help thinking in watching parts of this film, of Angela Pleasence's dad Donald, and the terrifying public information film he did for the British Government's Central Office of Information in 1973, the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water.
At the halfway point, the film gets... well, it gets stabby. A corpse is left sitting on a chair. And in one of the queasiest moments in the narrative, Helen goes to spread butter on bread, and uses a still-bloody murder weapon in the butter, and only notices when she gets blood in the butter, and then she absently goes to wash the knife like it isn't anything. She's not right.
|So much of the film is taken up with Autumn scenes.|
The linchpin of the film is that Helen is Somehow Not Right. And unravelling the mystery of exactly how Helen is not right, that's Symptoms' central hermeneutic pleasure, and it feeds the uncertainty of the movie. How much of this is in Helen's imagination? If Anna is hearing voices in the house, whose voices are they? But it's also the biggest problem, because Helen's disintegration is explicitly tied up with her desire for women.
It's a great film, a legitimate forgotten classic. It's just... only... just... it just has this one thing that is really hard to get past.