Tag Archives: psychotic women


Symptoms 1

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 25 April 2016

Distributor: BFI

Director: José Ramón Larraz

Writers: José Ramón Larraz, Stanley Miller, Thomas Owen

Cast: Angela Pleasance, Peter Vaughan, Lorna Heilbron

UK, Belgium 1974

92 mins

Spanish director José Larraz’s take on the English ghost story is beautifully atmospheric and subtly disturbing.

‘I know everything that goes on in these woods. Many things go on in these woods.’ So says Helen (Angela Pleasence), a delicate, vulnerable seeming young woman whose wide-eyed gaze seems indicative of an innocence bordering on mania. She is staying in a mansion with her friend Anne, played by Lorna Heilbron with a sharp Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby haircut. The other obvious Roman Polanski influence is Repulsion, as Helen’s feeble grip on reality begins to loosen and the story of a former friend Cora slowly unravels. All the while, Brady (Peter Vaughan), a beefy gamekeeper with Laurentian ambitions, lurks in the woods.

Spanish director José Larraz turns away from his earlier sexploitation style and produces that peculiarly English genre: the ghost story. Symptoms exists in the tradition of Don’t Look Now or, later, The Others, filled with painful memories, repressed desires and emotions and sudden messy violence. Like those films, it locates its core in human emotion and Larraz allows his characters time for their relationship to slowly evolve, as much through mutual quietness as dialogue. Both Helen and Anne need each other and there is genuine warmth, which never spends itself in lurid eroticism. This might be the beginning of a lesbian affair, or a deep friendship, or in fact both.

The gardens and woods, the river and pond are all filmed with a Kodachrome lustre, the sunlight glints from rivulets and river water dripping from dipping oars and through the branches of the trees that fragment it into shafts and yellow beams. The house itself is full of heavy furniture, but there are also mirrors that reflect the past as much as the present as well as knives and razors and an attic perfect for its very own Bertha Mason. There’s a kind of split personality to the way the camera moves as well. The meditative watching is constantly disturbed by the sudden cuts and movements, as if the eye must always search for something that just happened, a presence just departed.

As the denouement is reached, Larraz’s film confidently subverts without ever really surprising. There is a dread inevitability to the oddness that occurs and a sadness overlaying everything which mutes the horror, but also colours it effectively as if we are sleepwalking to our doom, destroying everything, including those we love, in our path. Although released as Britain’s entry to the Cannes Film Festival, Symptoms slipped away somehow and became a legendary lost film, on the BFI’s most wanted list of lost films as it happens, passed around by collectors in poor quality VHS versions. This new re-mastered print is deservedly pristine, highlighting the wonderful cinematography of Trevor Wrenn, who according to IMDb only photographed three films, all of them in 1974.

John Bleasdale



Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 28 April 2014

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Brian De Palma

Writers: Brian De Palma, Louisa Rose

Cast: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning

USA 1973

93 mins

My colleagues, they can make believe that Dominique is truly disturbed; I think that they will find that Danielle, who is so sweet, so responsive, so normal as opposed to her sister, can only be so because of her sister.

Present day, Staten Island, and actress Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) has been separated from her twin, Dominique Blanchion, for some years. She meets Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) a kind man who seems like he’d take care of Danielle; but when her spooky ex-husband shows up on their date, it becomes clear that she has a ‘past’. When sinister events unfold, columnist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) sees this as her big opportunity to write the story that will finally help her to bust through the glass ceiling, and starts her own investigation into Danielle’s life.

Central to De Palma’s films is the idea that the normal and the psychotic are symbiotic: they feed from each other, and one cannot exist without the other. It makes sense therefore that he would have been drawn to making a psychological thriller based on conjoined twins; Sisters (1973) is an early incarnation of the syrupy twisted with grotesque violence. What starts as a quasi-realist thriller takes a turn simply with the appearance of a huge birthday cake to celebrate the twins’ birthday; its pink frosting flowers, the twinkling candlelight, Bernard Herrmann’s score jangling in the background, and the enormous carving knife that has been placed next to it all bode ill, yet somehow they seem to be entirely appropriate. In Carrie (1976), three years later, De Palma would combine the saccharine normality of American high school pomp with pig’s blood and telekinetic delirium, and how blissful is that mix.

Sisters is like a fairy tale that evolves into a slasher thriller, with women doing some of the thinking – at last. De Palma is good at writing material where female characters are allowed to talk to each other, and about women. Grace Collier has scenes where she speaks about her frustrations with not being taken seriously; this happens at work, and when she confronts the police as a witness to a brutal crime, their levity is clearly based on her gender. She even gets to talk directly to Danielle Breton about something other than men or children, although Danielle’s capacity for murder is not much of an upgrade. Later, in a sense, Grace metaphorically changes places with Dominique, the disturbed twin. Grace is a character with guts and intelligence, but it’s as if these qualities can be easily made equivocal with the monstrous. Only heavy-handed hypnosis can manipulate her strong mind, and she is partly silenced for her agency and will. De Palma creates aberrant women, where psychosis merges with normality, even if the narratives shut them down at the end of the films. But consider Carrie’s hand thrusting out of the soil of her newly dug grave – this lasting image serves as a reminder that the monsters are not going to go away.

It’s good to see this cult classic re-released, and to remember it as one of the films that paved the way for other great films about twins, including Kim Jee-woon’s Tale of Two Sisters (2003).

Nicola Woodham