Thursday 19 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #31: Symptoms (1974)

So occasionally in this project, with folk horror being the accidental genre it is and everything, I've found movies and TV that fit neatly into other genres and subgenres. Highbrow TV theatre. Ghost Stories. Documentary. Black comedy.

So I want to talk about giallo movies. In the genre's native Italy, “giallo” (yellow, for the pages of pulp magazines) seems to be used to describe any horror/thriller movie with a bit of sex and gore in it, but in the same way that the Japanese word for “comic book” means something very particular outside of Japan, giallo for the enthusiast means a very specific sort of movie. And already I’m out of my depth, here, and the fact is that the nearest most people get to giallo films are films that aren’t strictly part of that genre, but which draw their inspiration from it. I'm talking about films like Suspiria here. Repulsion (1965). Black Swan (2010). These movies are almost always highly emotionally charged. 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, Symptoms is quite stabby.
There's a lot of golden Autumn in this film.
Symptoms, although the 1974 British entrant for Cannes, was lost for a long time, only extant still in dodgy VHS bootlegs, taped from old TV broadcasts. Recently a perfect print was found in the Netherlands, and the BFI released it on Blu-Ray/DVD as part of their excellent Flipside series in 2016. 
The film opens on a beautiful autumn afternoon. Leaves, quiet waters, woods. Sudden images of a dark-haired woman making love in the trees to an older man are cut with the woman's body floating facedown on the lakeside. The woman's picture on a table. And Helen, writing in a diary.
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.
She's in love with her friend.

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.
What was Helen really doing in Switzerland? Why doesn't she tell the man in the village that she isn't alone in the house? Is Cora's ghost haunting Helen? Is Cora even dead at all? What does Brady know? Something is very wrong with Helen, but what is it? 
Helen's haunting gaze.
It's to the credit of the filmmaker (José Ramón Larraz, credited on the film as Joseph Larraz, known for exploitation shockers about lesbian vampires) that even when you have enough information given to you to work out what is actually happening you find yourself still in doubt, right up to the end, as to whether that's the full explanation. Something about the way that Symptoms maintains a languid, slightly uncomfortable pace, mirrored in the languid discomfort of Helen, inspires an identification with her and her confusion, as if the film gets the closest cinema can to simulating dissociative disorders – and it's all in the title, isn't it? You're watching in sounds and images, the symptoms of a disease.
Caught by surprise.
Symptoms is in places really quite extraordinary. Every image is placed perfectly. Anna is stylish and willowy, worldly and modern. She smokes, dresses absolutely on point (for 1973). Her winter gear, her evening wear, it's all perfect, her eyebrows perfectly arched. Helen dresses casually. She wears jeans, simple clothes, a woollen shawl. Brady is all sweat and exertion. He slits the throat of a snared bird. He chops wood. The house is airy, warm and labyrinthine by turns.
Don't go into the attic, Anna.
And the constant proximity of the woods and the waters frame the film. Helen brings the woods into the house, using its intoxicating leaves and blooms as incense, as seasonings in her cooking, without even knowing what they are.

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.
Symptoms is not a public education film.

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.
By the end of the movie, three of the (small) cast have been murdered in stabby and gory ways.

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.
And this makes Symptoms about as much of an advert for queer rights as The Wicker Man is for paganism. That is, it's sort of seductive, beautiful even, exquisitely acted, fantastically made (and the restoration of its once-lost print on the Blu-Ray is heartbreaking, it's so good) and it's compelling in all sorts of ways, for the lover of cinema as much as the genre fan. But the same-sex desire is coded as a symptom of psychiatric illness, literally. Lesbian desire, dissociation, hauntings, murder. They're all symptoms and you're supposed to see them that way. It's in the title.

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.