Film

‘A weakness can often be close to cruelty’

José Ramón Larraz’s

British Films

In this in-depth essay on the work of José Ramón Larraz, Paul Lewis explores the director’s work, focusing on his early films made in 1970s Britain…

The hues of autumn. Leaves on the ground. Serene, empty, and – dare one say? – desolate woodlands, the landscape connecting us to the past but torn asunder by roads linking small villages with the city. Barren churchyards. Sex, and murder. Bourgeois perverts holding semi-occult orgies in isolated residences, progressing from sex to murder like a deeply English version of the Manson Family. Naked female bodies floating in lakes. Isolated country houses which hide seemingly incestuous secrets: boyish, almost androgynous young men living with older ‘aunts’; or young women battling with the repression of their own sexualities. Sex as death, and death as sex. Women in deeply impractical go-go boots stalking passing male motorists, using their sexuality to lure men to their deaths like modern-day sirens.

This, broadly speaking, is how the Spanish filmmaker José Ramón Larraz captured British – or more specifically, English – culture in the early 1970s. It is a mood-board of scenes, moments, and ideas that, like most outsider art, arguably gets to the heart of cultural anxieties (most notably, relations between the sexes; the tension between repression and licentiousness; and the intersection of sex, violence, madness, desire, and power) far more incisively than most indigenous filmmakers. It is a tableau that is spread across five films: Larraz’s feature debut Whirlpool (1970); Deviation (1971); Scream and Die! (aka Scream… and Die!, and The House that Vanished (1973); Symptoms (1974); and Vampyres (1974). If one were considering Larraz’s depiction of Englishness more broadly, one might also reflect on the two Spanish-produced features he made during this period: La muerta incierta (1973), which considers the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised in its narrative, set in the 1930s, that focuses on an English plantation owner who, by spurning her, incurs the wrath of an Indian woman named Shaheen; and Emma, puertas oscuras (1974), whose thriller-like plot examines a series of murders that take place in an isolated mansion.

During the repressive Francoist dictatorship, which of course extended to the death of General Franco in 1975, a notable number of Spanish genre filmmakers reacted in one of two ways. Some found ways to quietly circumvent (or subvert) the censorial imperative of the Spanish film censors. Others sought work in more liberal countries where their ideas could be realised with less controlling input from the powers-that-be. A prime example of the former tendency is Eloy de la Iglesia, who during the early 1970s directed several pictures that challenged the conservative mores of the Spanish censors, including 1972’s Le semana del asesino (Cannibal Man). Of the latter trend, the most famous – or infamous, one might say – is of course Jess Franco, who worked tirelessly in various European countries, honing his own unique and often explicit worldview.

However, perhaps the most interesting, and for a long time the most neglected, of these Spanish filmmakers is José Ramón Larraz. A true polymath, Larraz worked as both a comic book artist and photographer before manoeuvring into the world of filmmaking. Frustrated with the censorious climate in Spain, Larraz initially relocated to Paris, seeking creative freedom. Legend has it that in 1968, Larraz met Josef Von Sternberg during a visit to Brussels. When Larraz told the veteran filmmaker that he was interested in making films, Von Sternberg reputedly replied: ‘the only thing you need is a camera and actor.’ Thus it was that, at the age of 40, Larraz decided to become a filmmaker.

Following his meeting with Von Sternberg, Larraz transplanted himself from Paris to England, where he made his directorial debut (as ‘J. R. Larrath’, the pseudonym he would also use for his subsequent film, Deviation) with Whirlpool (1970). Ultimately, Larraz directed over 20 features, returning permanently to Spain following the production of Vampyres in 1974. (His return to Spain coincides broadly with the end of the Francoist dictatorship). Most of Larraz’s British films remained difficult or impossible to see on legitimate home video releases for many years, and original film materials for some of them seem to have vanished or remain inaccessible – to the extent that his 1973 picture, Symptoms, which represented Britain at Cannes in 1974 as the country’s official entry for the Palme D’Or, was considered a ‘lost’ film by the BFI until the negative was located in 2014. However, the final film of Larraz’s British period, Vampyres was fairly well-distributed on videocassette during the early years of the format and acquired a cult reputation because of this.

The reputation of Vampyres cemented Larraz in the popular imagination as the director of lurid supernatural horror films. Vampyres’ emphasis on nudity, blood, and bonking allied its director with the likes of Jean Rollin and the aforementioned Jess Franco. (That is, of course, not to say that for many years – and perhaps still today – the popular perception of the work of Rollin and Franco was not equally as reductive). However, the five films that together make up Larraz’s British horror period are strikingly diverse in subject matter though remarkably consistent in theme: there is a narrative trajectory within this series of films, in terms of the films’ depiction of the repression of women: from the passive victimhood of the female protagonist of Whirlpool to the violent fury of the two female vampires in Vampyres. (That said, all of these five films do, admittedly, contain copious amounts of nudity, blood, and bonking: that much is most definitely true).

Speaking of bonking, Larraz has said that his films feature an emphasis on sex because ‘In any human affair there is sex. It’s always there.’ However, the director also claimed that the genre of pornography was too ‘mechanical’ to be of interest to him. What we can take from this, arguably, is that Larraz wasn’t interested in the ‘mechanics’ of sex, but rather its connotations: sex as an expression of ‘human affairs’ and relations – power, love, hate, envy, and so on. This reading of Larraz’s statements on the importance of sex to ‘human affairs’ seems to be borne out in the films. Kim Newman has suggested that though Whirlpool and Deviation may broadly be considered as ‘sex films’, and David McGillivray associated Larraz with the British sex film in his book, Doing Rude Things (1992), they are really pictures that ‘no genre wants to own up to’. For Newman, ‘the films are too grim and depressing to be satisfying as titillation and yet they don’t really have the narrative drive of horror [films]’, and so they fall somewhere in the middle. Writing about Vampyres specifically, David Pirie conceded that ‘[w]hat might, in the hands of one of the UK’s purveyors of softcore, have been tacky, has a kind of magnificence here.’ 

Standing starkly against the diversity – nay, incoherence – of Larraz’s later pictures, the director’s British films demonstrate a startling sense of cohesion. Beneath their superficial adherence to the dominant paradigms of British exploitation films of the early 1970s – and its schoolboy-like fascination with images of tits-and-arse, a paradigm that emerged like the cathartic lifting of the lid of a Pandora’s Box that had been locked by generations of sexual repression – integral to Larraz’s films is arguably a critique of the strategies used to contain, repress, and coerce women. This is a theme explored to such an extent that the final film of Larraz’s British cycle, Vampyres, with its focus on female bloodsuckers who display a misandrist fury that verges on nihilism, feels like the ultimate pay-off to this five-picture narrative.

The first three of Larraz’s British pictures are boldly consistent, in particular. This is evident in their focus on recurring themes and visual conventions, and their ‘woman in peril’ narratives. Scripted by Derek Ford, the third feature in this cycle, Scream and Die!, contains some Euro-thriller stylings that bear comparison with contemporaneous Italian-style thrillers (the thrilling all’italiana, or giallo all’italiana), as popularised by Mario Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace) in 1964. Amongst these is a mysterious killer, clad in fetishistic black leather gloves, and a witness to murder who has only seen part of the crime – but whose ‘wrong place, wrong time’ experience leads to her becoming a target for the killer. There are also recurring cast members: notably, Karl Lanchbury, whose ever-so-slightly smarmy, boyish appearance made him perfect for the Norman Bates-style roles in which, in these films, Larraz casts him. (Lanchbury also appears in a smaller role as a victim of the Vampyres).

‘I am very inspired by houses,’ Larraz has said. The director expanded this assertion to establish that his interest in houses and domestic spaces is connected to his subscription to the belief that a life strongly lived can leave an imprint on a building. (It’s worth noting that ‘stone tape’ theory, though established in the 19th Century, had been re-popularised during the 1960s following the 1961 publication of T C Lethbridge’s Ghost and Ghoul, a book that has long been rumoured to have influenced Nigel Kneale in the writing of his 1972 teleplay The Stone Tape (Peter Sasdy)). Tapping into the symbolic importance of houses in traditional ghost stories, Larraz’s British films gain much of their identity from their use of isolated, semi-rural houses as locations. In Whirlpool, we have the isolated cottage to which the naïve young model Tulia (Vivian Neves) is lured by arty photographer Theo (Lanchbury) and his ‘aunt’ Sarah (Pia Andersson). The narrative of Deviation hinges on the large country house belonging to Julian (Lanchbury) and his sister Rebecca (Sibyla Grey), in which they hold Olivia (Lisbet Lunquist) and her married lover Paul (Malcolm Terris) following a car accident on a country road. Scream and Die! juxtaposes the mysterious country house in which model Valerie (Andrea Allen) witnesses a murder – after being taken there by her burgling beau, Terry (Alex Leppard) – with Valerie’s confined flat in the city. In Symptoms, repressed Helen (Angela Pleasence) invites her friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to stay with her in her isolated country house, which becomes a symbol of Helen’s sexual repression and, ultimately, madness. And finally, Vampyres makes memorable use of Oakley Court as the derelict Victorian mansion to which the film’s two female vampires, Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka Dzuibinska), lure their male victims.

Larraz claimed to be influenced in the making of his horror films by two writers: the American-British modernist author Henry James; and the Belgian writer of ‘weird fiction’, Thomas Owen. James’ status as the author of The Turn of the Screw (1898) is well-known, and that novella’s focus on a specific property haunted by past traumas seems to have worked its way quite overtly into Larraz’s British films, particularly Symptoms. However, Thomas Owen’s (real name: Gérald Bertot) work as a distinctive writer of Belgian ‘weird fiction’ is these days little-discussed in English-speaking circles. This is probably owing to the fact that English-language versions of Owen’s stories are out of print and difficult to come by.

What fascinated Larraz about Owen’s work, in particular, was the sense that the ‘fear’ of ghosts is connected to ‘the feeling of guilt’: ‘the pain [of loss] confronts you again, what they call “the living sorrow”. That’s one thing you learn when you become old, that it’s impossible to forgive yourself [….] To forgive yourself is a contradiction in terms.’ In particular, Owen’s work inspired some of the imagery in Vampyres: the depiction of the two vampires, Fran and Miriam, as hitchhikers luring passing male motorists to their doom, was inspired by one of Owen’s stories. In that story, a man picks up a female hitchhiker who wanders into a graveyard, forcing the male driver into the realisation that his passenger was the ghost of a dead woman.

Aside from being beautifully photographed, Larraz’s early films reflect his previous career as a photographer by often featuring the practice of photography as a key aspect of their narratives. In Whirlpool, for example, the amateur fine art photographer Theo (Karl Lanchbury), seen prowling through the woods (and staging the sexual assaults, and murders, of young women to photograph for his ‘art’), is contrasted with the world of commercial studio photography in the city. The protagonist of Scream and Die!, Valerie, is a model whose introduction in the film is in a scene set in a photographic studio, where she fends off the photographer’s insistent demands that she pose nude for him. Names, too, recur again and again throughout the films: Julian, Olivia, Paul. Actors appear in different roles: Lanchbury, of course, but also Sibyla Grey. There is a repeated emphasis on the horrors that take place within liminal spaces – green belt country houses, flats, pubs, and villages – and a sense of movement between these rural or semi-rural spaces and the city. And time and time again, Larraz’s characters speak in dialogue that is clipped and loaded with menace: this Pinter-esque approach to speech is non-naturalistic and may be sourced from the fact that Larraz himself spoke very little English, but it nevertheless articulates the profound alienation and uncanny ‘in-between-ness’ of the characters in these films.


Whirlpool 1970

‘This house is definitely not for me’ – Whirlpool (1970) 

Naïve young photographic model Tulia is lured by an older woman, Sarah, to a country house. There, Tulia meets Sarah’s ‘nephew’ Theo, a fine art photographer who spends most of his time prowling in the local woodland with a 35mm SLR camera hanging around his neck. Over a period of time, Tulia is plied with drink and drugs, and seduced by both Sarah and Theo; and it is revealed that Theo and Sarah are also involved in a sexual relationship, their passions ignited by the presence of Tulia – who is required to be both participant and voyeur in their seemingly incestuous trysts. However, Tulia discovers that her predecessor in the house, another model named Rhonda Clyde (Johanna Hegger), is missing; and forbidden from entering Theo’s locked darkroom, Tulia begins to wonder what secrets are contained within.

Whirlpool opens with a shot of the bank of a lake, and the opening credits play out over a montage depicting Theo, a 35mm SLR camera slung around his neck, rowing in the waters of this lake. As he lands the boat, Theo notices a woman’s knee-length boot on the bank. He flips this out of the water with the oar he is holding and bends down to inspect it, before sauntering back through the woods to the house in which he lives with his ‘aunt’ Sarah. This opening sequence will find its echo elsewhere in Larraz’s body of work, particularly in Symptoms, which opens with the naked corpse of a woman laid face-down on the bank of a lake. (The lakes in Whirlpool and Symptoms would appear to be the same location, as would the surrounding woodlands).

The predatory nature of Sarah is established from her introduction: ‘Do you think I’ll try to corrupt you?’ she asks Tulia later in the story. ‘You make me feel like the Devil himself.’ Following the film’s opening sequence, which ends with Theo unlocking the darkroom in the house and looking at his negatives, Sarah is shown in bed with a younger woman, Olivia (Sibyla Grey). They have clearly had a rough night, and the behaviour of the younger woman betrays her feelings of regret. This isn’t a scene of eroticism: it’s a scene depicting the regret one feels when waking in the bed of a stranger after an evening of over-indulgence, and the sense that one has been coerced by that over-indulgence into participating in something unpleasant. The camera lingers on Sarah’s face, the harsh lighting emphasising the signs of her age: though she still looks presentable, even glamorous, she is clearly significantly older than the woman next to whom she wakes up. Both women are naked; Kim Newman has said that the nude scenes in Larraz’s films are ostensibly a motivator for audiences ‘putting up’ with the many glum, depressing scenes in the films’ narratives: ‘But the nudity, in Larraz’s films… as the girls are stripping, you see their baggy underwear,’ Newman notes, and Larraz places young starlets alongside clearly middle-aged actresses. ‘You think, ‘who is this turning on?” 

Whirlpool 1970

However, as mentioned above, Larraz’s use of sex in Whirlpool, and elsewhere in his British films, seems not intended to ‘turn on’ (ie, titillate) the audience but instead to comment on exploitation, and specifically how people are coerced into sex. When, later in the film, Sarah tells Tulia that she is pursuing ‘Enjoyment without reservations of any kind’, Larraz’s critique of the permissive society – and how permissiveness can be engineered to enable manipulation, control, and exploitation – seems readily apparent. Like the British genre filmmaker Pete Walker, for example, Larraz suggests that permissiveness creates not freedom but its own kind of trap.

In their recurring examination of coercive sexual abuse, Larraz’s British films seem very relevant in the post #MeToo era. ‘Too many whiskies last night, darling? Or perhaps my cigarettes? You have to get used to them.’ Sarah says to Olivia. The young woman responds by telling Sarah that there will not be a ‘second time’: she’s packing her bags and heading back to London. ‘This house is definitely not for me. It makes me uneasy,’ she adds. The cigarettes to which Sarah refers are later confirmed to contain some sort of narcotic (presumably marijuana) which Theo buys in the country pub, from a young man (Tom, played by Andrew Grant) who – along with the tramp (Ernest Jennings) who plays the penny whistle in the local churchyard – is one of the pair of men that Theo photographed whilst they raped and murdered the missing girl, Rhonda. Within the film, Sarah makes repeated use of whisky and her ‘cigarettes’ in order to sidestep the issue of consent with her female ‘conquests’ (read: victims).

Later in the film, we see Sarah and Theo plying Tulia with whisky during an evening game of ‘strip poker’, Sarah lowering Tulia’s inhibitions by removing her own garments; inevitably, the over-indulgence in alcohol spills over into the bedroom. Watching Sarah with Tulia, and photographing their act of intercourse, helps Theo overcome his previously-stated impotence. ‘Theo’s a little Peeping Tom,’ Sarah informs Tulia, ‘It’s the only thing that gets him excited’: Larraz himself once said that one of the ‘miracles’ of cinema is that it allows the viewer, without repercussions, to ‘become voyeur, Peeping Tom, everything.’ The ensuing ‘threesome’ – which stimulates both Theo and Sarah – is mirrored in a later scene, in which we see an extended flashback of Tom and the vagrant assaulting Rhonda in a field, Theo photographing this, presumably with the intention of sharing the images with Sarah. In both scenes, Theo is positioned as the voyeur, photographing the events that unfold in front of him. The cycle of exploitation and violence seems set to repeat itself over and over again (like the whirlpool alluded to in the film’s title), with Tulia rather than Rhonda as the victim: and when Tulia ventures into Theo’s darkroom, like the new wife who ventures into Bluebeard’s underground chamber in the fairy tale, we know that her goose is cooked. (In retrospect, the young woman who left Sarah’s bed early in the film seems to have escaped very lightly.) Theo and Sarah’s motivations seem positively Sadean, it seems, when Theo tells Tulia that ‘One must be blessed with a special kind of awareness to relish in suffering.’ 

Whirlpool 1970

Sarah shuttles between the country house and a photographic studio in the city. Her role there is unclear: it seems Sarah is either an agent of some kind or a former model who has maintained a friendship with the photographer, Eric (Alan Charles). Either way, it is in the studio that she meets Tulia. Sarah describes Theo as ‘very sensitive’, and the photographer suggests Tulia might like her photograph to be taken by Theo: ‘Theo is Sarah’s nephew,’ the photographer says, ‘A nice chap, and a great artist.’ Later, driving to the country house, Sarah describes Theo as ‘delicate and intelligent. He’s a strange boy.’ Sarah suggests that Theo isn’t her biological nephew, simply a ‘boy without friends and family’ that Sarah took in: but nevertheless, when Sarah and Theo engage in coitus later in the picture, the scene feels ickily incestuous.

Theo’s focus on fine art photography shot on location in the woodlands and with natural light, is offset by the film’s depiction of commercial studio photography in the city. Theo carries his 35mm SLR everywhere: ‘He’s obsessed with photography,’ Sarah tells Tulia early in the narrative, ‘It’s a bit of a bore at times.’ However, for his part, Theo cocks his nose at commercial photography, telling Tulia that ‘I wouldn’t change it [the woods where he likes to photograph] for the best studio in London.’ Later, amplifying his relationship with the ethos of ‘candid’ fine art photographic practice, Theo seems to paraphrase the famous street photographer Garry Winogrand, when he tells another character that ‘Everything here [in the countryside] is photographable. At least, that’s the way I see it.’ Tulia sees the woods differently, however, describing them as ‘the place where reality and fantasy mix. It’s like the lake: it’s a dark mirror.’

The juxtaposition between Theo’s woodland photography and the studio photography that the professional photographer practices in the city underpin a number of other oppositions: between status (‘amateur’ artist, versus ‘professional’ craftsman); intention and purpose (fine art photography, versus commercial glamour/fashion photography); subject (the mundanity of the woods and nature, versus the glamour of the studio); location (rural, versus urban/metropolitan); and equipment (Theo’s 35mm Canon SLR, versus the medium format Hasselblad that is used in the studio). One wonders about the extent to which these oppositions, which recur throughout Larraz’s British films, reflect tensions within the director himself: Larraz had manoeuvred through the art world, working as a cartoonist and photographer, before entering into filmmaking, and captures this milieu in a naturalistic manner. The bridge between these oppositions is Sarah, who chooses her and Theo’s victims from the photographic studio, selecting naïve young models and, in modern parlance, ‘grooming’ them into accompanying her to the country house. 

Whirlpool 1970

Whirlpool was released in the US in an abbreviated version, which omitted various moments from the picture. The cuts included trims to characters arriving at and leaving buildings; some edits to the strip poker scene; and a brief spoken-word coda which offers a mealy-mouthed explanation for the events – in the style of both Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) and Dario Argento’s L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), released the same year. The European cut also featured a red tint for the extended flashback depicting the rape and murder of Rhonda, whereas the US cut presented this sequence in monochrome. For many years circulated in rip culled from a timecoded VHS, fortunately, Whirlpool has recently seen an excellent HD presentation on Blu-ray from Arrow Video. Somewhat sadly, this presentation is of the shorter US edit of the picture, though there is a marvellous little featurette (by Marc Morris) outlining the differences between the US cut and the original edit of the film.

There are overt parallels between Whirlpool and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1972), an adaptation of Scottish author Gordon Williams’ 1969 novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm. Perhaps ironically, considering that the sexual assault which underpins Straw Dogs was an invention of the film with no precedent in the source novel, Peckinpah’s film is often cited as inspiring a short-lived subgenre of rural rape-revenge films (what Kim Newman has termed ‘rapist down the pub’ films ). Including the likes of James Kenelm Clarke’s Expose (aka The House on Straw Hill, 1976), these films predominantly feature young women who are lured to the countryside, brutalised, and seek revenge. There were even some European imitators of Straw Dogs, including Una donna per 7 bastardi (Roberto Montero, 1974). Though produced before Straw Dogs, Whirlpool treads remarkably similar ground; unlike Peckinpah’s film, it was incredibly little seen, even in the home video era. Nevertheless, it’s perhaps worth noting that James Kenelm Clarke, the director of Expose, started his career in cinema by writing film scores, and composing the music for Larraz’s Vampyres. (The producer of both Vampyres and Expose, Brian Smedley-Aston, recompensed Clarke for his services on Vampyres by paying him very little but allowing him to ‘keep the rights to the music, which seemed a sensible arrangement.’).

Both Whirlpool and Straw Dogs imagine the British countryside as a place populated by potential sex criminals and murderers, where help is far away, and where the veneer of civilisation is stripped away to reveal something deeply unpleasant beneath it. Peter Vaughan’s presence in the cast of Symptoms also offers a connection between Larraz’s films and Straw Dogs. Kim Newman has suggested that both Larraz and Sam Peckinpah were cultural outsiders to Britain: like Peckinpah, Larraz ‘looks around, and what he sees in the permissive society is not liberation, it’s oppression.’ Larraz’s worldview perhaps overlaps with that of, say, the Italian genre filmmaker Sergio Corbucci, whose westerns all’italiana (particularly Il grande silenzio/The Big Silence and Gli specialisti/The Specialists, both 1969) offer barely-concealed critiques of the counterculture. Larraz’s cynical view of countercultural trends and permissiveness would be amplified in his next picture, Deviation.


Deviation 1971

 

‘There’s something strange going on in this house’ – Deviation (1971)

Olivia and her married lover Paul are involved in a car accident on a rural road after a mysterious figure appears to dive in front of the vehicle Paul is driving. They are rescued by Julian, a taxidermist, and his sister Rebecca, who take the couple to the isolated mansion in which they live. At night, in the room Julian and Rebecca have given them to stay in, Paul and Olivia hear cries and distant voices. Soon, they begin to realise they have been drugged by their hosts. Paul escapes the room and stumbles into the bedroom of an elderly woman, Julian and Rebecca’s aunt (Shelagh Wilcocks); she is a psychic medium who appears to be suffering from dementia.

Exploring further, Paul discovers Julian presiding over the impromptu burial of the corpse of the person Paul hit with his car. Julian is accompanied by a group of young people and directs one of the young women to seduce Paul. During the act of intercourse, Julian orders Paul’s murder, and a frenzied Rebecca stabs him to death. Afterwards, he and Rebecca explain Paul’s absence to Olivia by saying that Paul has abandoned her in order to return home. Soon, Julian seduces the lonely Olivia and begins to ply her with heroin in order to make her more cooperative. Meanwhile, he stores Paul’s body in the cellar, planning to practise his taxidermy skills on it.

Following an enigmatic titles sequence – which cross-cuts between a woman running through woodland with footage of a man, later revealed to be Julian, barricading a window Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) style (ie, by nailing wooden boards to the frame) – Deviation opens with Julian and his sister Rebecca collecting the corpse of a dog, which Julian has been asked by a client to stuff and mount. Julian’s status as a taxidermist foregrounds the lineage between Larraz’s British films and Hitchcock’s thrillers – particularly Psycho (1960). In Whirlpool, Deviation, and Scream and Die!, Lanchbury essentially plays very similar roles: prissy, boyish young men who live in the shadow of a female ‘relative’ (in Whirlpool, aunt Sarah; in Deviation, Rebecca; and in Scream and Die!, aunt Susanna), skirting with incestuous desire and paraphilia, and concealing murderous impulses. In Deviation, the fact that Lanchbury plays a character who is also a taxidermist amplifies the indebtedness Lanchbury’s characters in these pictures demonstrate towards Anthony Perkins’ characterisation of Norman Bates. When Julian expresses an interest in human taxidermy, something which will later play a key part in the film’s plot, one cannot help but think of Norman Bates’ preserved mother in the cellar of the Bates house.

Deviation 1971

Larraz’s film’s graphic nature, however, positions Deviation at a mid-point – in terms of its exploration of the theme of human taxidermy – between Psycho and Joe D’Amato’s later, more explicit Psycho-alike Buio Omega (Beyond the Darkness, 1979). Following the murder of Paul, Larraz returns a number of times to shots of Paul’s naked body laid out on a table in Julian’s cellar, a tap dripping nearby. These shots are interspersed into several scenes, and the effect is not dissimilar to Peter Greenaway’s cutaways to the decaying swan in A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) (or Jorg Buttgereit’s similar cutaways to a decomposing human corpse in Der Todesking (1990)): a constant reminder, in such a bleak setting, of death and decay; and the murder of one of the film’s principal characters.

During their time in Rebecca and Julian’s house, Olivia begins to realise the extent to which she has been hoodwinked by her married boyfriend, Paul. Paul insists on trying to return home to his wife, rather than remaining with Olivia; so when Paul goes missing, after his encounter with Julian’s associates, Olivia does not question Rebecca’s claim that Paul has gone home. ‘Why should a woman always fall into the role of an idiot?’ Olivia asks Paul angrily, after she becomes frustrated with a spinelessness which is indicative of his avoidance of responsibility, ‘You’re [men are] all the same: bastards!’

Larraz suggests that countercultural youths are also ‘bastards’. Here, the counterculture is embodied in the group of youths that hang around Julian and Rebecca’s home. The fashions of these young people ally them with the hippie subculture. Paul first encounters these youths as they bury the corpse of the man Paul hit with his car, in the grounds of Julian’s home. There is a callous lack of regard for the dignity of this dead man: ‘Now cover him up,’ Julian tells the others angrily, before spitting: ‘I’m sick of looking at his face!’ Paul then witnesses the young people engaging in a half-hearted ‘occult’ ritual that seems little more than an excuse for a sexual free-for-all. This, and the orgies that are held by the group later, are captured by Larraz’s camera with an equal mixture of salaciousness and cynicism: Larraz simultaneously exploits and condemns the sexual licentiousness of Julian’s associates. (The scenes of rituals and orgies in this film seem to be a precursor of some of the events in Larraz’s later picture Los ritos sexuales del diablo/Black Candles, 1982). 

Deviation 1971

As the leader of this group, whose members seem to reside in Julian and Rebecca’s house, Julian holds a Charles Manson-like sway over them. (‘We just want to play a game,’ they tell Paul, ‘If you’ll play it with us, we’ll be the best of friends.’). Paul is captured and sexually humiliated by the youths, who encourage one of the young women, Vivian (Debbi Garland), to fuck Paul in front of them. The paunchy, middle-aged Paul seems to resist this weakly, then consent – until, that is, he is stabbed to death by a frenzied Rebecca. Paul’s murder feels very much like an example of ritualistic sacrifice that, like the Manson murders, is directed by Julian. (The parallels with the Manson case are underscored by Rebecca’s cries of ‘Pig! Pig! Pig!’ as she stabs Paul.) As in Whirlpool, Larraz’s critique of the permissive society seems to be laser-guided, on par with Lucio Fulci’s denouncement of drug-addled hippies as poseurs in the Italian thriller Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin), released the same year as Deviation, or Piers Haggard’s oblique critique of liberalised youth culture in The Blood on Satan’s Claw (also released in 1971).

However, Larraz is an equal opportunity misanthrope and shows equivalent scorn for the older generations. The middle-aged Paul is a deeply unsympathetic character: unfaithful to his wife, who we never meet, he is willing to abandon Olivia despite acknowledging that they have both been drugged and ‘There’s something strange going on in this house.’ Paul’s narcissism allows his little head to rule his big head, and he walks willingly to his doom by meekly protesting when Julian has one of his young female friends seduce Paul in front of the others. But also witness, for example, the sequence in which Rebecca journeys into the village in order to acquire medication for Olivia, who Julian has pacified by plying her with heroin to the point of overdose. Before leading Rebecca to his home, the village’s elderly pharmacist comments that Julian and Rebecca ‘seem to have quite a time in this house. I wish you’d invite me to one of your ‘sessions.’’ ‘Our parties are for the younger generation,’ Julian responds. The pharmacist offers to provide the medication Rebecca requests, but only if she will accompany him alone and dress in his dead aunt’s clothing.

The lecherous pharmacist is played by Geoffrey Wincott, a familiar actor in British television series, and he invests the character with a sleazy menace: there is no doubt that this village pharmacist is little more than a kinky old pervert, lusting after Rebecca’s young body. Rebecca allows herself to be seduced by the pharmacist, before killing him. (Gerontophilia, alongside incest, is one of the sexual taboos that Larraz seems unafraid of confronting.) Again, as with the seduction of Paul by Julian’s female crony, the scene speaks of the theme of sexual coercion which runs through Larraz’s British films: at its best, in Larraz’s films, sex is something that can be traded, the product of blackmail, or simply a symbol of exploitation. Here, in particular, as in Vampyres the act of coitus is quite explicitly a prelude to murder: sex and death become intertwined, almost indistinguishable from one another. 

Deviation 1971

Without Paul, Olivia becomes Julian and Rebecca’s captive, and they toy with her much as Theo and Sarah toyed with Tulia in Whirlpool. Julian is swift to seduce Rebecca, taking her to the soirees he holds with his groupies. There, Rebecca is introduced to marijuana; and it isn’t long before Julian begins to shoot heroin into Rebecca’s arm. ‘I’m going to show you a new world,’ he promises her, ‘A world you’ve never experienced before. A world filled with awareness and feeling.’ The junk makes Rebecca compliant, but there is also a sense of her obedience being impelled by Julian’s arrogance, and his clipped, upper-middle-class accent.

Though not a supernatural horror film, Deviation demonstrates a passing interest in psychic phenomenon, represented in the film via Julian and Rebecca’s bedridden ‘auntie’: she is a psychic medium, and Rebecca tells Olivia that ‘Without her, we are unable to communicate with them [….] the dead, the absent.’ Olivia, it seems, is particularly obsessed with trying to make contact with her deceased father, her discussion of him demonstrating something of an Electra complex – which is carried through in her murderous tryst with the elderly pharmacist. However, as the film’s opening shot (a closeup of a phrenology bust, followed by an even tighter closeup of a part of the bust labelled ‘Destructiveness’) and its final scene suggest, Larraz is not really interested in supernatural phenomenon – but rather what belief in, and obsession with it, signifies about the human mind. In fact, though this film and both Scream and Die! and Symptoms skirt around the issue of supernatural goings-on, the real terror in these pictures is sourced from human behaviour. The only truly supernatural film out of Larraz’s British pictures is Vampyres.

The scores for both Deviation and Whirlpool were written by Eurocult favourite Stelvio Cipriani. Both scores are driving and urgent. Where much of Whirlpool takes place in harsh daylight, Deviation is a film that exacerbates its unsettling Gothic (and a little bit fetid) atmosphere via much night photography. This makes, even more, frustrating the fact that the film only circulates currently on shonky VHS rips, which crush the contrast and bury the textures of the photography beneath a layer of analogue video noise.


Scream and die 1973
 

‘Not porno, just a bit lurid’ – Scream and Die! (1973)

Photographic model Valerie and her dodgy boyfriend Terry drive out to an isolated house in the woods. Terry is planning to burgle the house, which he has some difficulty finding. However, the occupier interrupts by returning home unexpectedly. Hiding in a wardrobe, Valerie and Terry watch as the occupier of the house murders a woman. Valerie manages to escape, but Terry is left behind.

The next day, having made her way back to London, Valerie tells her friends, Stella (Annabella Wood) and Mike (Lawrence Keane), about what happened. She refuses to go to the police, as this will only implicate both herself and Terry in a criminal act. However, though Terry never returns, Val sees his car parked outside her flat on a number of occasions.

Kent introduces Valerie to one of his photographic clients, Paul (Karl Lanchbury), who deals in handmade masks made by his aunt Susanna (Maggie Walker). Soon, Val begins to fall for Paul, and the pair become a couple. However, Val also meets another mysterious stranger: Mr Hornby (Peter Forbes-Robertson), who has moved into the flat below hers. Could any of the new people in Valerie’s life have knowledge of what happened to Terry? When Val’s flatmate Lorna (Judy Matheson) is brutally murdered, it seems that Valerie may be the next target of the killer.

Where Larraz is credited as writing the scripts for both Whirlpool and Deviation (with ‘story by’ credits for other participants, and presumably – given Larraz’s well-documented limits in speaking English – other writers contributing towards the films’ English dialogue), Scream and Die! (or Scream… and Die!, as the title is sometimes formatted) was scripted by Derek Ford. During the 1970s, Ford made something of a name for himself as the director of sex films such as The Wife Swappers (1970), and Keep It Up, Jack (1976). However, he also dabbled in films that combined sex and horror elements, directing the pseudo-documentary Secret Rites (1970), about occultism, and the hardcore picture Diversions (aka Sex Express, 1976): interestingly, he contributed material, along with Italian exploitation filmmaker Luigi Batzella, to the portmanteau ‘mondo’ film Proibito erotico (Eros Perversion, 1978). As a writer, however, Ford demonstrated an affinity for the motifs of the thriller, having sharpened his writing pencils on television series such as Z Cars, (BBC, 1962-78) Adam Adamant Lives! (BBC, 166-67), and The Saint (ITV, 1962-69). Here, his script for Scream and Die! marries elements of the Hitchcockian thriller with an emphasis on the bare flesh of its female lead – but also, unexpectedly, attempts to invest Valerie with a significant sense of agency and subjectivity.

Scream and die 1973

For example, following the titles sequence (which plays out over eerie shots of Valerie’s silent flat, on the first floor of a building, at night), we are given a proper introduction to Valerie in the studio of photographer Kent (Edmund Pegge). Val is posing for some arty fashion shots. The ever-so-slightly sleazy Kent pushes his luck, telling Valerie: ‘Val, I’ve got a really well-paid job for you. I’d like to take some nude shots of you for paperbacks.’ Valerie turns him down, firmly. Kent tries to push the issue by saying that he has seen some nude shots, taken by other photographers, that Val has posed for. (‘It’s “no” to me, and “yes” to other photographers, isn’t it?’ he asks.) Val responds by saying that ‘The kind of nude shots I do for other photographers, and the kind you want me to do, are two completely different things.’ ‘Are you suggesting I’m “porno”?’ Kent asks, clearly bitter. ‘Not porno, Kent: just a bit lurid,’ Val tells him. ‘You’re so suburban, aren’t you?’ Kent bites back. ‘Choosy,’ she says. ‘You’ll change your mind,’ Kent informs her. ‘No,’ Val says sharply: ‘Get on.’

Nevertheless, Val’s sense of ownership of her professional life doesn’t extend to her personal life. After Terry’s disappearance, her friends Stella and Mike wonder how Valerie ever got mixed up with Terry, a petty thief and miscreant. Kent also tells Val that he doesn’t like Terry, who Kent implies has been physically violent with Valerie in the past. (Val’s relationship with the shiftless, irresponsible Terry parallels Olivia’s relationship with the equally irresponsible, married Paul in Deviation). Later in the film, Hornby (Val’s downstairs neighbour) delivers a line which, ostensibly about his pigeons, seems intended to encourage the viewer to reflect on Valerie’s role as a woman in this film, and her oscillation between fierce independence and passive lover of a ‘wrong’ male: ‘Sometimes I let the birds out of the cage,’ Hornby tells Val, ‘so that they can have the chance to flap their wings.’

Confirming the judgements of Valerie’s friends and acquaintances towards her boyfriend, the film establishes Terry’s lack of responsibility early on, in terms of his relationship with Peter: a child of around 11 or 12, who appears to be Terry’s son. The film never outlines the relationship between Terry and the child overtly within the dialogue, but rather subtly, through gestures and action. After the titles sequence, and before we see Val in the photographic studio with Kent, the film presents the viewer with a brief scene in which Terry is shown drinking in a pub with Stella and Mike (presumably waiting to collect Val from the studio), whilst the child waits outside in Terry’s car, alone and reading a Tarzan comic book. After Terry collects Val from the studio, they drive out to the countryside. (The child flicks through Val’s portfolio of photographs, clearly intrigued with the semi-revealing pictures; Val tuts, and takes the portfolio from him.) They pull up outside a house in a village, and Terry asks Val to lend him a fiver, which he gives to the boy. ‘And tell your mum that that’s the lot,’ Terry tells the child, who walks alone to the front door of the house.

We only realise Terry is planning to burgle the house in the woods once he and Valerie arrive there. They have some difficulty finding the house, and, presumably, Terry has been told about it by an associate in the city. ‘I’ve just got to go and pick up a couple of things,’ he tells Valerie, leaving her in the car, before forcing his way through one of the external doors of the building. Up until that point, the viewer may (reasonably) assume that he and Valerie are on their way to a soirée of some kind. Curious, and tired of waiting, Valerie follows him inside. Terry is angry and tells her to go back to the car and wait for him. ‘I must have been an idiot to follow you,’ Valerie notes: her assertiveness with Kent, in the photographic studio, has been undermined in her interactions with Terry.

Scream and die 1973

In a drawer in the house, Terry discovers a handful of foreign passports, all belonging to different young women. ‘That’s a bit dodgy’, he notes, and the couple hear the owner of the house return in a car. Two people ascend the staircase: a woman, and another figure (of indeterminate sex) clad in black. Terry and Valerie hide in a wardrobe and watch as the woman undresses seductively. ‘You know, you’re not an easy person to get on with. You’d find it very difficult to get another girl who would put up with all your strange whims and fancies,’ the woman says, adding: ‘Aren’t you even going to take your gloves off?’ She removes her bra and places the other figure’s leather-gloved hands on her breasts. A close-up of a flick-knife, the blade briefly reflecting light, is followed by the brutal murder of the woman: the figure plunges the knife into her torso, before slitting her throat. Seizing her opportunity, Valerie escapes, leaving Terry in the wardrobe. However, she discovers that she can’t start Terry’s car: Terry still has the keys, and he hasn’t followed her outside. Valerie flees and finds herself in a wrecker’s yard, where she hides in a derelict vehicle. After a near-miss with the killer, who has pursued her, she spends the night in the car. In the morning, she makes her way back to London, but cannot escape the persistence of the killer.

Irresponsible petty criminal Terry is eventually replaced in Val’s affections with an equally inappropriate romantic match: Paul, a young man from a privileged background who is under the thumb of his ‘aunt’, Susanna. Valerie too-hastily falls for Paul, who Kent refers to as ‘the delicate type’. Their relationship quickly becomes sexual. However, though the majority of the film is focalised through Valerie’s perspective, Larraz briefly breaks away from Val to show us Paul and Susanna at home. In a moment that was probably shocking to unaware viewers, but seems predictable within the context of the undercurrent of incest within Larraz’s British films, Susanna kisses Paul – at first maternally, and then passionately. Soon, they are naked and having intercourse. ‘In that flat with his aunt,’ Val comments on Paul at one point, unaware of the sexual nature of his relationship with Susanna, ‘She smothers him.’ For her part, Susanna tells Paul enigmatically that ‘A weakness can often be so close to cruelty,’ and this line seems to underscore the broader narrative within Larraz’s five British films, particularly in terms of their representation of women. It is a leitmotif that is brought to the foreground in the manner in which, in Vampyres, Fran and Miriam use their perceived vulnerability as women to lure their male victims to their deaths; and also the way in which Helen, in Symptoms, deceives the other characters in the narrative by positioning herself as a deeply vulnerable character.

It is Scream and Die!’s focus on Val’s relationships with her dodgy boyfriends that has invited comparisons with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965): assertions of the ‘influence’ of Repulsion over Larraz’s British films (particularly this one, and Symptoms) are quite prevalent, though in truth Larraz’s pictures are a hodgepodge of ideas. Elements of some of Hitchcock’s thrillers, particularly Psycho, are evident in these films, and Scream and Die!’s examination of an unreliable witness to murder, its mysterious and seemingly gender-neutral assassin who wears black gloves, and fetishistic closeups of murder weapons (the flick-knife, for example) also invite comparisons with contemporaneous Italian-style thrillers/gialli all’italiana. More specifically, in terms of the Euro-thriller, Scream and Die!’s narrative has a rough corollary in the metropolitan woman-in-peril Italian thrillers of filmmakers like Sergio Martino (La coda dello scorpione/The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, 1971) and Luciano Ercoli (La morte accarezza a mezzanotte/Death Walks at Midnight, 1972).

From the opening sequences, depicting Valerie and Terry’s experiences inside the isolated house, to its climax, Scream and Die! features some superb photography and eerie lighting. In this building, interior spaces are filled with menacing shadows and an utter sense of emptiness. Anchored by this aesthetic, Scream and Die! is the film that pushes Larraz’s fascination with the eerie potential of domestic spaces to the front and centre of its narrative. The film opens with eerie, blue-tinted night-time footage of Val’s silent flat, over which the opening titles are presented. A clock ticks. Val is asleep in the bed, but the camera slowly dollies away from her to show the rest of the flat, an open door, and the emptiness of the room beyond it. There is a sense of something watching and waiting, preparing itself to uncoil in the darkness – though the plot hasn’t yet moved into first gear, and Val has not yet encountered the strange, isolated house in the woods.

Scream and die 1973

Later in the film, Val explores the flat beneath hers, from which she has been hearing strange noises. It is eerily empty, and pigeons are flying in one of the rooms. We assume the pigeons have managed to find their way into the flat somehow. However, the next day, Valerie learns from her landlady that the downstairs flat actually has a new tenant, Mr Hornby. When Val meets Hornby, he tells her that the pigeons are actually his pets, and in a line of dialogue that feels strongly like an example of authorial intrusion, Hornby tells Val that ‘A place is made inhabitable by inhabiting it [sic].’ The phraseology is a little awkward, but it seems safe to assume that Hornby means to say, ‘… by not inhabiting it.’ The line seems to echo throughout Larraz’s British films, and one thinks of all of the empty houses in these pictures, and their function as liminal spaces: the strange country house in Whirlpool; Julian and Rebecca’s seemingly huge house in Deviation, which is more prison than home; in Scream and Die!, Val’s eerily quiet flat, and the seemingly deserted house in the woods, which is almost impossible to find; the house in Symptoms, which all the characters note as being empty for indefinite periods of time, and to which Helen brings her friend Anne; Oakley Court in Vampyres, to which the titular ‘vampyres’ return with their prey, and where they sleep in the wine cellar.

In America, Scream and Die! was distributed by AIP in 1974, with a title (The House that Vanished) poster that invited comparisons with Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972): a black and white still of Val running through the woods was juxtaposed with text declaring, like the infamous poster for Craven’s picture, ‘It’s only a movie!’ (The film had previously had a very brief release in the US, under a different title, Don’t Go in the Bedroom, and was re-released later in the decade as Psycho Sex Fiend). AIP’s poster also told viewers to expect a picture ‘In the great Hitchcock tradition’. The US release version, which also made its way to video in that country, was cut by slightly over ten minutes, bringing the running time down to just under 90 minutes in total. Major cuts were made to the scene in which Paul is seduced by his ‘aunt’, and to the sexual assault and murder of Lorna: this admittedly graphic scene was the locus of the controversy surrounding Scream and Die!, and its primary purpose within the picture seems to be intended to provoke debate. (That said, the film has also had at least one uncut VHS release.)

The film has been released on Blu-ray in the US, but in its cut form by Dark Force Entertainment; with an HD presentation sourced from a rough-looking 35mm print, and all the issues this entails (shonky contrast levels, crushed shadow detail, and so on). Consequently, any cinephile wishing to explore Larraz’s filmography is lumbered with either a Blu-ray release of the abbreviated US edit of the picture or alternately a rough and ready dupe of one of the uncut VHS releases. More’s the pity because, as noted above, the photography in this film – as in all of Larraz’s British films – is very good, with atmospheric use of chiaroscuro lighting and expressionistic use of coloured gels on the lights. Contrasting with the daylight horrors of Whirlpool and – to some extent – Vampyres, both of Larraz’s films which feature such exquisite use of low-light photography and shadow, this and Deviation are sadly absent, at least in satisfying presentations, on home video formats that could do greater justice to their photography.

Fortunately, the same cannot be said of Larraz’s Symptoms, which is perhaps the best-regarded of the director’s films – not just his British pictures, but his body of work as a whole. Considered a ‘lost’ film by the British Film Institute for a number of years owing to the apparent absence of any original film materials – and appearing on the BFI’s ‘most wanted’ list for that reason – Symptoms was eventually restored after the negative was discovered in 2014, following a screening of the picture at a film festival in Belgium. (This writer would like to gain credit for pointing the BFI in the right direction by emailing them about the screening, but in truth probably dozens of other people did the same).


Symptoms 1974

That lake is like the sea, it always gives up its dead.’ – Symptoms (1974)

Helen Ramsey and her friend Anne arrive at Helen’s house in the country. Helen has been away from it for some time, apparently working as a translator in Switzerland. From the outset, it is clear that Helen is sexually attracted to Anne, though Anne seems unaware of this.

When Helen visits the village pharmacy to collect some medication, she is asked about the whereabouts of Cora (Marie-Paule Mailleux), who usually accompanies Helen during her stays at the house. Cora, it seems, has disappeared. Meanwhile, the groundsman Brady (Peter Vaughan), who appears to know a secret or two about both the house and its owner, skulks about the woods and in the stables, in the garden of the house, in which he lives. Helen, too, has something to hide, which Anne only discovers too late.

Like Whirlpool, Symptoms opens with the bank of a lake. Larraz’s stated love of Henry James – and James’ use of Lake Bly as the locus for the supernatural activities in The Turn of the Screw, the ghost of Miss Jessel being linked to the lake – seems very apparent in his depiction of bodies of water, particularly in Symptoms. Only here, instead of the woman’s boot that Theo finds by the lake in Whirlpool, Symptoms’ opening shot is of a naked female corpse lying face-down in the mud and leaves. This enigmatic, unsettling fragment of a scene sets the tone for the rest of the narrative. We wonder who the woman is, and how she died. When Cora’s absence is revealed, it appears to be most likely that she is the corpse seen by the lake: but why does Helen keep seeing Cora around the house, and what are those strange sounds in the attic? Later in the film, Brady will tell Helen: ‘I knew I’d find her [Cora’s] body sooner or later. That lake is like the sea: it always gives up its dead.’

The film seems to suggest that the most likely perpetrator of the murder of Cora – if it is she – is Brady, the groundsman; and that given the nudity of the corpse, her murder most likely had a sexual motive. (Later developments in the story will reveal that Cora and Brady were conducting a passionate affair; their relationship has presumably deliberate echoes of the affair between Quint and Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw.) However, given the eccentricity of Helen’s behaviour and the fact that it is very quickly revealed that she is both a deceiver (of others and herself, perhaps), even a first-time viewer will quickly realise that the ‘finger’ pointing towards Brady is a form of misdirection which is reliant on the cultural myth that only men perpetrate violence against women. This deeply toxic myth, which frames women as victims and men as aggressors – and is perpetuated by both pop culture and news media – is one which Larraz consistently deconstructs (or at the very least, complicates) throughout these films. 

Symptoms 1974

Pleasence’s performance in this picture is delightfully off-key. By all accounts, Pleasence had a rough experience working on the picture, finding Larraz’s behaviour towards her to be caustic and dictatorial: Pleasence has said that Larraz could ‘get very verbally aggressive.’ He ‘had this incredible need to control all of the time’: for example, at one point Larraz had freezing cold water from a hose turned on Pleasence, without warning her in advance. Additionally, Larraz apparently became quite angry when Pleasence refused to strip for one specific scene in Symptoms; and for a moment in which Helen removes her top, a body double was brought onto the set. (Pleasence has joked that ‘Anyone who knows me would know that they couldn’t possibly be my tits. If only they were, because I’m such a tiny little creature.’). Pleasence also had other unpleasant experiences on the film set: she was hospitalised after one of the lights fell on her head, putting her survival down to the fact that the top of her skull is distinctly rounded, enabling the lamp to be deflected rather than shattering her skull completely.

Larraz reputedly originally wanted Jean Seberg for the role, though because Seberg was not a member of Equity she wasn’t allowed to work on the picture. Pleasence suggests that this was the reason for Larraz’s temperament towards her on the set of the film. However, it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Pleasence playing Helen. On the topic of Pleasence’s on-set run-ins with Larraz, Lorna Heilbron admits that he was ‘very direct’ with some other performers, but praises his handling of her own performance, adding that he didn’t over-direct: if he felt that an actor was on the right direction with their performance, he wouldn’t say anything. Other actors who have been interviewed about working with Larraz – for example, Marianne Morris and Anulka – have predominantly reflected positively on their experiences with the director. Consequently, one wonders whether Larraz took a dislike to Pleasence, or if he deliberately adopted a coarse manner with her in order to make her uneasy on the set: certainly there is something deeply uneasy and awkward in Pleasence’s performance as Helen.

Kim Newman has suggested that Symptoms and Vampyres diverge from Larraz’s previous films in ‘writ[ing] the men out,’ focusing on female relationships in which men are ‘incidental’. In Symptoms, the core relationship is between Helen and Anne, and its echoes of the relationship between Helen and the absent Cora. Helen quite clearly seems sexually attracted to Anne: for example, watching her as she disrobes for the bath. However, Anne is heterosexual and has a boyfriend, John (Ronald O’Neil), who Helen clearly resents.

In A Heritage of Horror, David Pirie pointed out the debt owed by Symptoms to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), suggesting that Larraz’s picture ‘somehow managed to survive the comparison’ with the Polanski film. Like Repulsion, Symptoms is a study in sexual repression and its effects. However, the similarities between Symptoms and Repulsion are, for this writer, often oversold, and in truth, the narrative of Symptoms seems to owe just as much – if not more – to James’ The Turn of the Screw. James’ novella is, of course, another tale about a woman who experiences sexual repression and sees ghosts that may or may not be ‘real’. Like Carol (Catherine Deneuve) in Repulsion or the governess in The Turn of the Screw, Helen seems repulsed by sex (or at least, heteronormative sex). ‘You brood over things too much,’ Anne tells her friend, ‘It’s bad for you.’ When Helen and Anne walk through the woods after their arrival at the house, they encounter Brady, who Helen describes as ‘the odd job man.’ Anne suggests that Brady is ogling Helen, and she argues that this is, in a way, a compliment. ‘The very thought of him makes me sick,’ Helen responds angrily, ‘He disgusts me!’ As Anne and Helen talk, the film cuts from close-ups of their faces to close-ups of Brady’s axe biting into the trunk of a tree. The implication is clear: Helen sees Anne’s words, her suggestion of an attraction between Brady and Helen (and the idea of heteronormative sex), as equivalent to violence. Later, Helen makes a paper chain of dancing men, before, to Anne’s confusion, throwing it in the fire. ‘I like to watch them burn,’ Helen says by way of an explanation; and the moment is a hint both of the violence to come, and Helen’s distrust of men – which, the film later reveals, was apparently compounded by the fact that Helen discovered Cora and Brady were involved in a passionate relationship.

Symptoms 1974

On the film’s editing, it’s worth noting that Symptoms was cut by Brian Smedley-Aston. Smedley-Aston had started his career editing Desmond Davis’ Girl with the Green Eyes (1964) and had worked on numerous films, including Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970). He would go on to edit various cult horror movies, including Jeff Lieberman’s Squirm (1976) and Blue Sunshine (1977); and he would edit Larraz’s later picture Rest in Pieces (1987). Smedley-Aston reputedly experienced quite an abrasive relationship with Cammell during post-production on Performance. Nevertheless, the use of symbolic montage in Performance seems quite evident in Symptoms too, as in the aforementioned scene between Anne, Helen, and Brady. Whilst working on Symptoms, Smedley-Aston quickly became friendly with Larraz, praising the director’s careful emphasis on setting up shots and his attention to how a scene was lit, which Smedley-Aston has suggested was owing to Larraz’s background as a photographer. Smedley-Aston and Larraz’s relationship would continue on to Vampyres, which Smedley-Aston financed by remortgaging his house.

Symptoms is focalised almost entirely through Helen’s point-of-view. Consequently, we share her moments of delusion, such as when she sees Cora in Brady’s stables-cum-home or inside the house, one of these appearances clearly alluding to the manifestation of the ghost of Quint (on the other side of a pane of glass) in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), which is, of course, an adaptation of James’ The Turn of the Screw. ‘I can hear things nobody else can,’ Helen says at one point, and at night we see her listening to strange sounds coming from the attic: of course, an attentive viewer will immediately begin to suspect that these sounds that ‘nobody else’ is able to hear are little more than auditory hallucinations being experienced by Helen.

There are some moments that take us away from Helen, however, such as when Anne spends her first night in the house and hears unearthly groaning. Anne goes to investigate and discovers that the sounds are coming from Helen’s room. The groans sound equally like the muffled cries of someone who is being attacked and the stifled moaning of orgasm. (This moment in the film seems quite directly to be modelled on the sequence in Repulsion in which Carol listens, repulsed, to the orgasms of her sister and her lover in the adjoining bedroom.) Anne is confronted by a tousled Helen, who opens her bedroom door with a simultaneous sultry and mousy look; it seems clear that Helen has been masturbating, though Anne appears unflustered. Later, in another sequence, we see Helen masturbating whilst laying her stomach, her body twisted to look at the door to the attic from which the mysterious sounds have been emanating, and where a brutal murder will very shortly take place. The normally demure Helen groans animalistically, and her face bears a frenzied expression. It’s difficult to imagine another scene in a British film that so encapsulates the impact of repression in attaching sexuality to loss of control and shame, and associating it with destructive, and animalistic, instincts. As a cultural outsider, Larraz captures – in this film and his other British pictures – the texture of repression with a gaze that is objective and cutting.

When Helen and Anne arrive at the house, Helen winds and sets all of the clocks; and for much of the film, the eerie silence of the setting is articulated through the amplification on the soundtrack of the sound of these clocks ticking, almost as if they are the beating heart of the house itself. Notable, when the film moves towards its climax, and Helen’s mask of sanity slips completely, Helen stills the grandfather clock in the parlour, and this ticking disappears from the soundtrack.

  

The film begins with a premonition by Helen. She is seen writing in her journal, a voiceover narration expressing her thoughts: ‘I have a feeling that something is about to happen. Something final, in which I will be involved.’ The narrative of Symptoms bears some striking, most likely incidental, similarities to the second episode of the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, ‘Premonition’ (directed by Robert Stevens, 1955). In ‘Premonition’, musician Kim Stanger (John Forsythe) flies back home to his hometown of Stangerford after spending four years studying at the Sorbonne. The opening of the episode depicts Kim’s plane landing, and in a voiceover, Kim tells us that he returned home on ‘a sudden impulse, a hunch, a restless feeling’: a premonition of something bad that has happened or is about to happen. (‘I defy you to guess the nature of Kim Stanger’s premonition,’ Hitchcock challenges the audience in the introduction to this episode.)

In Stangerford, Kim discovers his father is missing. Eventually, he learns that his father is dead, apparently from a heart attack. However, the odd behaviour of Kim’s brother (Warren Stevens) and wife, Susan (Cloris Leachman) – who happens to be Kim’s former girlfriend – and various other members of the community, leads Kim to believe that there is some form of conspiracy surrounding his father’s death. Kim investigates, and works his way up the food chain, interrogating his father’s lawyer, the undertaker, and various other figures – in an increasingly aggressive manner. At the end of the episode, when Kim returns to his father’s hunting cabin, it is revealed to Kim by Susan that Kim wasn’t studying in the Sorbonne for four years: instead, he was being held in a mental hospital, from which he has escaped, after killing his father at the hunting lodge. The conspiracy that Kim has uncovered was devised to protect him from this harsh truth.

Like Kim Stanger, of course, Helen’s story about working as a translator in Switzerland is an untruth. (It’s unclear, however, whether or not Helen is aware that this is a fabrication: is she lying to Anne, or does she believe her own delusion?) Helen, it seems, has also been held in a mental hospital, and she visits the pharmacist in town to buy her medication: with later developments in the narrative, the viewer may presume the medication Helen collects from the pharmacy to be some form of sedative, or perhaps an anti-psychotic. (‘I don’t understand myself,’ Helen finally admits to Anne at one point, ‘I’m ill!’) Later in the film, we discover the nature of Helen’s murderous temperament and her involvement in the death of her friend/lover Cora. Helen’s trajectory in Symptoms is remarkably similar to that of Kim Stanger in ‘Premonition’. Certainly, Symptoms borrows from Hitchcock’s bag of tricks quite directly: a murder that takes place partway through the film owes much to the narrative coup Hitch staged in Psycho, whilst the staging seems quite clearly modelled on the death of Arbogast, the private investigator played by Martin Balsam, on the stairs of Norman’s house. Given some of the film’s other subtle nods to Hitchcock (there is a scene in which Helen is cutting bread with a breadknife, that seems quietly to pay homage to Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929)), the parallels between Symptoms and ‘Premonition’ may have been intentional, or may simply be a case of synchronicity.

A beautifully haunting film, Symptoms is dominated by an autumnal palette and near-constant rainfall, which creates an atmosphere of oppression. Helen’s mental deterioration is signposted from the outset, but quickly accelerates; and by the midway point of the picture, when she sits in a room staring at a corpse in an armchair and playing with its hair, it is clear that she is, to use a charming colloquialism, as mad as a box of frogs. This is a film in which violence is swift and brutal, and indiscriminate in its victims. There is the suggestion of the supernatural, though as in The Turn of the Screw – which seems to be a clear model for the narrative of Symptoms – this is depicted ambiguously. Nevertheless, the film – like Helen – is haunted by Cora and her relationship with Brady, the coarse ‘odd job man,’ the lake and its association with death; and the pairing of Cora and Brady has clear parallels with the affair between Miss Jessel and Quint in James’ novella.

As mentioned above, Symptoms was the official British entry for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1974. The film was partly produced by a Belgian publisher, and it seems the negatives were kept in Belgium, though for a number of years the British Film Institute included Symptoms on their list of ‘most wanted’ British films: this list consists of British films whose original film elements have apparently disappeared. The negative was rediscovered in 2014, however, and the film was restored; this restored presentation has been released on Blu-ray by both the BFI in the UK and Severin Films in the US. In the years between Symptoms’ cinema release and its 21st Century restoration, it had mostly been encountered by fans via bootleg videotape-sourced versions, often culled from one of the film’s two screenings on ITV during the 1980s (in 1986, and again in 1989). Larraz’s next British film, however, would be more widely distributed on home video formats, and for many years would be the film with which Larraz’s name was most closely allied – by English-speaking fans, at least.


Vampyres 1975

‘You’ve got to convince yourself you were dreaming’ – Vampyres (1974)

Fran and Miriam are vampires who live on the fringes of society, in a near-derelict mansion in the countryside. They survive by posing as women in need of a lift, luring passing male motorists to the mansion before plying them with wine from the cellar, and then feeding on their blood.

Fran and Miriam ensnare Ted (Murray Brown), taking him to the mansion. After an evening of exotic wine and energetic sex, Fran drinks Ted’s blood. However, she does not kill him, and Ted awakens, drained of blood and confused. Believing the wound on his arm to be caused in a drunken state by broken glass, Ted seeks help from a couple, John (Brian Deacon) and Harriet (Sally Faulkner), who have parked their caravan on the grounds of the mansion, believing it to be uninhabited.

Fran and Miriam return with other male victims. Meanwhile, despite Miriam’s warnings that she is ‘playing a dangerous game. Kill him before it’s too late,’ Fran keeps Ted alive in the house: there is a bond of recognition between the couple. Soon, the savagery of the vampyres threatens to spill out of the mansion and swallow John and Harriet.

After Larraz and Brian Smedley-Aston met on Symptoms, they vowed to work together on another film. They swiftly went to work on Vampyres, which would become the most ‘known’ of Larraz’s British films thanks to its circulation on home video. The various cuts to the film in different territories, and the stories about the uncut version of the film, added to its cult cache during the videocassette era.

Vampyres 1975

Smedley-Aston financed Vampyres by remortgaging his own house. The total budget for the film was around £44,000; but because this was loaned money, factoring in interest on the repayments, Smedley-Aston eventually paid around £75,000 for the picture. According to Smedley-Aston, Larraz shot the film very economically, aware of the limitations of the budget, with sequences being very closely storyboarded. Smedley-Aston would resort to unusual tactics in order to keep the budget down: if the crew worked overtime, for example, he would pay them cash in hand, with a £10 note at the end of the day, rather than filling in timesheets; and he paid makeup effects artist Colin Arthur by giving Arthur his (Smedley-Aston’s) own BMW. (This is in fact the BMW that is shown in the film as belonging to Ted). Smedley-Aston would also cut costs by doubling as a camera operator. Arthur has reflected that Smedley-Aston was a producer ‘that really wanted’ to make films rather than just being in it for the money: ‘you know when the motivation of the producer is “pure”’, Arthur has said, ‘It shows in the end.

Where Symptoms is, for much of its running time, relatively restrained in terms of sex and violence, from its opening frames Vampyres displays a luminous frankness towards sexuality and bloodletting. The film opens with an exterior shot of Oakley Court, the camera zooming in to the only window that is lit. This cuts to the interior of the hallway; the sound of a ticking clock is drowned out by the sound of a footstep on a wooden floor. Following this, we are presented with Miriam and Fran in bed, naked and kissing. Someone enters the room whilst their attention is on each other. It’s a silhouette of a man wearing a brimmed hat. He fires a pistol, the barrel of which is captured in a tight close-up; the shots are intercut with shots of the naked Fran and Miriam screaming as they are hit by bullets. They fall back on the bed, presumably dead. The rest of the film’s narrative, in which Fran and Miriam lure men back to the mansion with the promise of sex before dispatching them and drinking their blood, may be read as symbolic revenge for this act of male violence. How the deaths of Fran and Miriam, depicted in the opening sequence which takes place at some point in the past, are connected to their ‘rebirth’ as vampires in the present day, remains unexplained – and is one of a number of narrative ‘loose strands’ within Vampyres that viewers will find either enticing or frustrating, depending on one’s point of view.

The events depicted in this enigmatic opening sequence seems to be the source of the legends about the mansion, which are referenced in the film’s closing moments. Ted, drained of blood and disoriented, finds himself in his car after surviving a night of terror. He is woken by an elderly man, an estate agent, who assumes Ted is drunk and insists that he leave. Ted tries to offer an explanation, but the agent is not listening to him and turns his attention to a middle-aged American couple. The agent is giving the American couple a pitch about the mansion: they presumably intend to buy it. The husband asks the agent if the legends about the house are true, and the agent responds by saying that ‘some years ago the bodies of two unidentified women were found’ in one of its rooms. This story, the agent says, ‘hasn’t helped in selling the house’: it is shunned by people who are superstitious and believe the house to be haunted. ‘One can’t believe in such things nowadays, can one?’, the agent asks. ‘My wife will be thrilled at the idea of having a ghost in the place,’ the husband says enthusiastically, as Ted drives away. In its final moments, Vampyres could be said to offer a wry commentary on the manner in which British (and specifically, English) history is codified and repackaged as ‘heritage’ for cultural outsiders (in particular, American culture): a site of a brutal crime in the past, and various nefarious goings-on in the present, is regarded by the visiting Americans as an example of quaint ‘olde worlde’ England. The moment arguably anticipates the overseas popularity of conservative British ‘heritage’ cinema, most popularly exemplified by the Merchant Ivory productions, of the 1980s.

The relationship between Ted and Fran is rendered ambiguously, but there is a connection between the characters that seems to bridge the past and the present. When Ted arrives at the hotel, the elderly manager insists to the girl on the desk that Ted is ‘an old client’: ‘We haven’t seen you down here for years,’ the manager says, his attention directed towards Ted. However, Ted insists very firmly that he hasn’t been in the area before: in fact, he is so firm that the manager offers an apology. Ted’s reaction to the hotel manager may be read either as genuine confusion at the suggestion that he has been recognised or as an attempt to mislead the manager who believes that he recognises Ted. Nevertheless, it seems Ted is recognised in the area, by both the manager of the hotel and Fran: the film leads the audience to assume that Ted resembles a man Fran knew in her past, perhaps the man who shot her and Miriam in the film’s opening sequence, though this is never confronted directly. Was jealousy the principle motivation for the shooting of Fran and Miriam? ‘You remind me very much of someone I knew a long time ago,’ Ted tells Fran ambiguously, when he first picks her up in his car. Again, the nature of Ted’s relationship with Fran, and with the area, is never explained: it is another narrative ‘loose strand’.

Vampyres 1975

This film, more than any other by Larraz, displays a comprehension of how the eerie can be derived from things half-seen and half-comprehended. (The influence of Thomas Owen’s brand of ‘weird fiction’ can be evidenced in Vampyres’ approach to the uncanny.) As John and Harriet drive up to the mansion with their caravan in tow, John sees Miriam standing by the side of the road, hitch-hiking. The camera stays in John and Harriet’s car, and we catch a glimpse of Fran hiding behind a tree. Harriet sees this too and tells John (‘There was another one, hiding behind the trees,’) but John insists that she is mistaken. That night, after parking the caravan in the grounds of the mansion, while John sleeps Harriet hears a man scream and sees a bloodied hand pressed against the window of the caravan. She wakes John, but again he insists she is mistaken and tells her that she ‘must have been dreaming.’ ‘You’ve got to convince yourself that you were dreaming,’ John insists, trying to settle Harriet. Later, he subtly mocks Harriet by telling her ‘You see hands and ghosts just about everywhere.’

There seems to be a lineage between the brutal murder of the two women at the start of the picture and John’s persistence in not believing Harriet, of claiming that she is mistaken or has misinterpreted what she has seen or experienced. Larraz’s previous British films featured women who are threatened by men – most of whom are admittedly working with or under the thumb of a more dominant female partner/associate.

With its contemporary setting, Vampyres stands in stark contrast to both the Gothic historical fantasies of Hammer’s vampire films and the studio’s rather ‘un-hip’ approach to capturing the counterculture in its vampire films with modern-day settings (such as Dracula A.D.1972 (Alan Gibson)). Hammer had of course tried to sex up the vampire picture in the late 1960s/early 1970s, with films such as Jimmy Sangster’s Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (John Hough, also 1971). In A Heritage of Horror, David Pirie referred to Vampyres as ‘a worthy climax’ of the ‘short-lived’ focus on ‘sex vampire’ films in Britain. (Of course, on the continent, this trend would experience a longer shelf life in the films of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, amongst others).

Pirie also suggests that ‘the men [in Vampyres] are not nearly as well cast as the women.’ As noted above, Kim Newman has said that Larraz’s last two British films ‘write the men out’: but in truth, these films don’t omit men from their narratives, instead inverting the roles of men and women. Miriam and Fran’s ‘project’, of luring men to their doom like modern-day sirens, almost seems like revenge for men’s treatment of women in Larraz’s earlier British pictures – or in other vampire films. (One thinks of Andrew Keir’s repressive staking of the writhing Helen, played by Barbara Shelley, in Terence Fisher’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)). If there is a narrative strand that links these five films, it is the ‘battle’ between the sexes, with Vampyres offering a coda to this broader plot: a sense of closure predicated on the return of the repressed, with female vampires taking their revenge in a manner that makes them seem more like examples of a much more modern phenomenon, the serial killer. It’s arguably wrong to suggest that Vampyres – or the ‘female vampire’ pictures of Jean Rollin and Jess Franco – is a feminist, or even crypto-feminist, picture: to do so would perhaps equate the films with didacticism, stripping them of their anarchic pleasures and ignoring their elements of incoherence. However, they certainly interrogate gender roles in conventional horror cinema, and as with Larraz’s other films, offer a broadside to the repressive depiction of women as victims and men as aggressors: for Larraz, violence isn’t gendered but is instead simply a case of those with violent tendencies and motivations, men and women (and usually a combination of both), ‘punching down’.

Vampyres 1975

Whilst not quite on the level of Georges Bataille, Vampyres heads in that direction. The film links sex and death inextricably: sex leads to death, and there is death within sex. The bloodletting in this film is frenzied, more like the flesh-eating of the ghouls in Night of the Living Dead (1968) than most depictions of vampires in cinema. The sex is equally frenzied and animalistic; and with Ted and Fran’s fucking (a kinder euphemism doesn’t carry the violence of the act), it’s difficult to tell where the sex ends and the bloodletting begins. The casual sex between Ted and Miriam, and Fran and the pair’s other male victims (including Karl Lanchbury and Michael Byrne), is contrasted with the stability of John and Harriet’s monogamous relationship. John and Harriet are on the outside, in their caravan, whilst the men who are willing to engage with casual ‘hook ups’ are taken inside the house and devoured. (Notably, the film’s sole sex scene between John and Harriet, which is tender in comparison with the fucking that takes place in the mansion, precedes their slaughter at the hands of Fran and Miriam). The film also establishes an overt visual connection between the exotic red wine (‘from the Carpathian mountains,’ Fran tells Michael Byrne’s wine connoisseur/playboy) and the blood that the vampyres drink from their victims: this is a parallel which is ineffably, unmistakably biblical.

Within this context, it’s difficult not to see Larraz’s film as a conservative denouncement of the ‘free love’ generation, its viewpoint anathemical to countercultural tendencies of the late 1960s and 1970s – and still today, within the context of politicised ‘sex positive’ movements. Whilst in Symptoms, Larraz explored the impact of repression on the self, here he suggests that the opposite of repression (in other words, licentiousness) is equally harmful.

The calibre of the film’s casting director, Miriam Brickman, attracted actors Sally Faulkner and Brian Deacon to the production. Brickman had worked with directors such as John Schlesinger (on Billy Liar (1963), Darling (1965), and Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)), Francois Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451 (1966)), Lindsay Anderson (If….(1968)), and Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs (1971)). She would go on to cast Expose, which was also produced by Brian Smedley-Aston. Smedley-Aston has suggested that Brickman was a fan of Larraz’s, though Brian Deacon has said that he wonders how Brickman came to be associated with Larraz and intimates that Larraz and Brickman may possibly have been involved in a relationship with one another.

Faulkner, in particular, seems to be particularly displeased with Vampyres, suggesting that she only took the job because of Brickman, who impressed her as a ‘very classy casting director,’ and because she wanted to work with Deacon. However, she says that like Pleasence on Symptoms, she and Deacon had some ‘problems’ with Larraz, and ultimately felt ‘a bit used’ and ‘slightly humiliated’ by the experience: ‘Jose was very single-minded and just not supportive,’ Faulkner has said, adding that he was ‘critical, he particularly was of me.’ Nevertheless, Faulkner and Deacon’s characters exist on the periphery of the narrative: they are outsiders who become increasingly uneasy following their experiences on the impromptu campsite they establish close to the mansion. One wonders whether Larraz may have tried to stimulate this sense of unease in his treatment of the actors.

Vampyres 1975

Whilst all of Larraz’s British films are superbly shot, the photography in Vampyres is particularly notable. The director of photography on this picture was the veteran cinematographer Harry Waxman, and he employs numerous effects in Vampyres: photographing Fran and Miriam wandering through churchyards and fields, their journey framed by trunks of trees and bare branches of bushes and hedgerows; and using graduated filters to darken the sky (for example, in many of the shots of Oakley Court). In A Heritage of Horror, David Pirie praises Vampyres’ ‘fairy-tale element’ and Larraz’s strong visual sensibility, ‘especially for nature and rain-soaked vegetation.’ With its emphasis on an autumnal palette of greens and browns, dead leaves scattered on the ground in fields and churchyards, Vampyres consolidates Larraz’s fascination with the season of autumn and England’s rural and semi-rural spaces.

Equally impressive and haunting is the film’s sound design: exterior spaces are barren, empty, and lifeless in terms of sound; whilst the interiors are dominated by the sound of wind howling through empty hallways. This is certainly not naturalistic but is highly atmospheric. The eerie nature of the film’s sound design is amplified by the fact that for budgetary reasons, the dialogue was post-synched rather than recorded live on set. (Notably, Marianne Morris was dubbed by the jazz singer Annie Ross).

In the UK, the BBFC cut Vampyres by approximately three minutes, removing another 26 seconds from the film before giving it a video classification in 1989. Footage was chiefly removed from the opening shooting of Fran and Miriam; the sex scene between Ted and Fran; Miriam and Fran feeding on the character played by Lanchbury; the sex scene between Fran and Miriam that takes place in a shower; Miriam and Fran drinking Ted’s blood, and their ensuant snogging with one another; and stark, cruel climax which depicts the killing of Harriet: stripped naked and screaming, her throat is slit by the vampyres. According to Smedley-Aston, the BBFC originally considered cutting more footage from the film (approximately five minutes in total), but they considered Larraz to be an auteur of sorts, and so were fairly lenient with the picture. The film ‘went backwards and forwards quite a lot’ before the BBFC settled on the three minutes of cuts they wished to make. Nevertheless, even Smedley-Aston admits that the final UK release version was ‘quite strong’.

When the film was released on DVD by Anchor Bay in the early years of the format, the presentation was advertised as uncut but as in fact, owing to an error, missing approximately 30 seconds from the climactic murders of John and Harriet. This was remedied in subsequent home video releases, and most recently Vampyres has had an uncut HD release on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

Conclusion” ‘You can see hands and ghosts just about everywhere’

By all accounts, Larraz was a filmmaker who shied away from the spotlight. Smedley-Aston has described him as ‘monastic’, suggesting that in particular Larraz hated the ‘razzmatazz of Cannes’ when he visited the film festival with Symptoms, and stayed there ‘as short a time as possible.’ Reluctant to promote his films, Larraz was both gregarious and an introvert, apparently enjoying the process of making films but not ‘the world of cinema’ (ie, pitching, promoting, and selling films and projects). Larraz himself claimed that he hated the self-importance of many of those involved in the world of filmmaking, and during his visit to Cannes with Symptoms he found himself on an aeroplane with Tony Richardson: ‘I thought “I can’t stand it here,”’ Larraz said, after listening to Richardson talk about his intentions as a filmmaker.

By all accounts, Larraz avoided going to meetings and was not a ‘joiner’: ‘He stood alone: people would have had to come to him and say, “We really want you,”’ and as Larraz’s body of work was fairly limited, ‘people didn’t. Symptoms might have been the breakthrough, but it just wasn’t seen enough, in fact.’ For Marianne Morris, within the context of British cinema’s depiction of sex, there was a continental frankness to Larraz’s exploration of the topic of sexuality, which was ‘almost like a breath of fresh air. It was there!’ This frankness, however, caused consternation for those of a censorious mindset, both in Britain and in other countries, with Larraz’s British films for the most part presented in a confusing plethora of variant edits.

There are some similarities between Larraz’s British films and those of Pete Walker, who at the same time was making British horror pictures that pitted themselves against the Gothic fantasies of Hammer and its ilk, which had by the 1970s become the dominant paradigm, by dragging the genre into a contemporary setting. The films of both Pete Walker and Larraz demonstrate a fairly conservative worldview, offering a skeptical perspective on notions of free love and youth subcultures. In retrospect, this seems arguably more radical than the films that attempted to embrace the counterculture and appeal to a youth audience, such as Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972. Where Pete Walker baulks at the labelling of his films as ‘horror’ cinema (preferring instead the label ‘terror’), Larraz distinguished between fear, horror, and terror: he argued that horror and terror are ‘instantaneous’, but fear us ‘in the mind’ and has to be ‘built’ by the filmmaker and ‘savoured’ by the audience . ‘I’m someone who is attracted to fear’, Larraz asserted, ‘It draws me in.’

As noted above, though Larraz’s British films contain thriller-like elements and often reference Hitchcock’s films, there is a seemingly deliberate avoidance of narrative twists, with the result that the narrative events depicted within the films have an inevitability to them. This can make watching the films a deeply bleak, oppressive experience; and though they contain ample nudity and sex (Larraz once joked that in Britain, ‘You see a tit, and that’s “erotic”. That’s not rocket science,’) they are not ‘sexy’. In fact, the opposite is true: the films’ depiction of sex is off-putting, and predominantly linked to coercion and exploitation… and death.

There is a strong sense of cohesion within Larraz’s British films, and a particularly vivid visual sensibility: Smedley-Aston has suggested that Larraz was guided by his photographic eye and ‘wasn’t worried about the rules of filmmaking.’ Larraz would ‘just [go] ahead and [do] it, even if it was with a handheld camera’: he ‘really wasn’t interested in the grammar [of cinema], and it nearly always worked.’ This is remarkable, given that the first of these pictures, Whirlpool, was also the first feature that Larraz made. The world depicted within these films is threatening and filled with peril. Much has been written about the parallels with Larraz’s films and Polanski’s Repulsion, though in truth Larraz’s films offer a hodgepodge of ideas and moments drawn from a variety of sources – both cinematic (Hitchcock’s thrillers) and literary (Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw; Thomas Owen’s ‘weird fiction’; possibly also Robert Aickman’s work). This period in Larraz’s career ended with Larraz returning to Spain, an event that coincided with the end of the Francoist dictatorship. In his home country, Larraz would direct a number of comedies and horror films; and though there were flashes of brilliance, there was no other period in his career which was as consistent, and authored, as the five years he spent making pictures in Britain. Ultimately, as Smedley-Aston has said, Larraz ‘deserves some kind of recognition, even if it is a small cult. But then again, it’s better to have a cult following than no following.’ 

Sources:

[1] Please see this writer’s review, for Warped Perspective, of Severin Films’ Blu-ray release of this title: https://warped-perspective.com/index.php/2021/09/12/cannibal-man-1972/

[2] Larraz, quoted in the documentary Eurotika!: From Barcelona… to Tunbridge Wells (Andy Starke & Pete Tombs, 1999), originally screened on Channel 4 in the UK

[3] Larraz, quoted in the documentary Vampyres and Other Symptoms (Celia Novis, 2011)

[4] Eurotika!: From Barcelona… to Tunbridge Wells

[5] Newman, in Obsessive Recurrence: The Early Films of Jose Larraz, included on Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of Whirlpool

[6] Newman, in ibid.

[7] Pirie, David, A New Heritage of Horror. London: I B Tauris (2008), 202

[8] the director of various sex pictures, but also the sex-horror oddities Secret Rites (1971), a pseudo-documentary focusing on black magic, and Diversions / Sex Express (1976), a hardcore sex-horror-thriller film

[9] Larraz, in Vampyres and Other Symptoms

[10] Larraz, in Vampyres and Other Symptoms

[11] Larraz, in Vampyres and Other Symptoms

[12] Vampyres and Other Symptoms

[13] Newman, in Obsessive Recurrence: The Early Films of Jose Larraz

[14] Newman, in ibid.

[15] See this writer’s article for Horrified about Pete Walker’s collaborations with the writer David McGillivray, ‘“A very serious relapse”: Pete Walker & David McGillivray’s Frightmare, House of Whipcord, and House of Mortal Sin’, available online at: https://www.horrifiedmagazine.co.uk/film/pete-walker-david-mcgillivray/

[16] Revealing the fate of Rhonda isn’t truly a ‘spoiler’, as there is an overriding sense of inevitability to the events in this and Larraz’s other British films. Given Theo’s discovery of the boot on the bank of the lake earlier in the film, the audience will have already realised that Rhonda is dead, her presumably body disposed of in the lake, and that Theo and Sarah are culpable.

[17] Larraz, in Eurotika!: From Barcelona… to Tunbridge Wells

[18] As an aside, this use of an older woman to essentially ‘groom’ naïve young women into lowering their inhibitions seems to have been a genuine occurrence during this period. This is perhaps unsurprising; but speaking anecdotally, a number of years ago this writer interviewed a former glamour model (of the late-1980s) who tearfully related how she had been ‘groomed’ at the age of 16 by a fairly well-loved British female personality into traveling to London and posing nude in a photographic studio: the aforementioned female celebrity presented herself as a surrogate mother figure, met the young woman at a train station in London, and bought her lunch, earning the young woman’s trust before persuading her to disrobe for the camera. The event was clearly still a traumatic memory for the woman I interviewed, though the fact that these comments were ‘off the record’ prevents me from naming names. In Obsessive Recurrence: The Early Films of Jose Larraz, Kim Newman wonders if the manner in which predatory older female characters like Sarah appear in films such as Whirlpool and the likes of Norman J Warren’s Her Private Hell (1968), in the context of the glamour photography industry, might suggest that they were based on a specific individual: rather, this writer would suggest that the use of such middle-aged, ‘mumsy’ women to ‘groom’ younger models was probably a fairly widespread practice.

[19] Newman, in Obsessive Recurrence: The Early Films of Jose Larraz

[20] Brian Smedley-Aston, in ‘A High Stakes Enterprise’, an interview with Smedley-Aston that appears on Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of Vampyres

[21] Newman, in Obsessive Recurrence: The Early Films of Jose Larraz

[22] Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the script is the fact that we never see Peter again, to learn of the effect of Terry’s disappearance upon him.

[23] The cinematographer on this picture was Trevor Wrenn, who also photographed Symptoms in an equally atmospheric manner: sadly, these appear to be the only two features in which Ward had such a major role, though he worked in technical roles on a number of other films. Ward did direct one feature, 1975’s Erotic Inferno, which featured Karl Lanchbury alongside the likes of Mary Millington and Heather Deeley (who featured in Diversions, directed by the writer of Scream and Die!, Derek Ford).

[24] Angela Pleasence, interviewed on the BFI’s Blu-ray release of Symptoms

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] See the interview with Angela Pleasence on the BFI’s Blu-ray release of Symptoms

[30] See the interview with Lorna Heilbron on the BFI’s Blu-ray release of Symptoms

[31] Anecdotally, I know that in my own experience directing short films, I have occasionally been a little abrupt or sharp with an actor, in order to provoke an emotional response when I feel that they have been holding back or reticent to express negative emotions.

[32] Newman, in Obsessive Recurrence: The Early Films of Jose Larraz

[33] Pirie, 200

[34] See the interview with Smedley-Aston on the BFI’s Blu-ray release of Symptoms

[35] Ibid.

[36] See ‘A High Stakes Enterprise’, an interview with Brian Smedley-Aston included on the Arrow Video Blu-ray release of Vampyres

[37] Ibid.

[38] See ‘Bloodletting on a Budget’, an interview with Colin Arthur included on the Arrow Video Blu-ray release of Vampyres

[39] Ibid.

[40] Pirie, 183

[41] Pirie, 201

[42] See ‘A Cut-Throat Business’, an interview with Brian Deacon included on the Arrow Video Blu-ray release of Vampyres

[43] See ‘Unhappy Camper’, an interview with Sally Faulkner included on the Arrow Video Blu-ray release of Vampyres

[44] Ibid.

[45] Pirie, 201

[46] See ‘A High Stakes Enterprise’, an interview with Brian Smedley-Aston

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] See the interview with Smedley-Aston on the BFI’s Blu-ray release of Symptoms

[50] Brian Smedley-Aston, in Eurotika!: From Barcelona… to Tunbridge Wells

[51] Larraz, quoted in the documentary Vampyres and Other Symptoms

[52] See the interview with Smedley-Aston on the BFI’s Blu-ray release of Symptoms

[53] Marianne Morris, in Eurotika!: From Barcelona… to Tunbridge Wells

[54] See this writer’s article for Horrified about Pete Walker’s collaborations with the writer David McGillivray, ‘“A very serious relapse”: Pete Walker & David McGillivray’s Frightmare, House of Whipcord, and House of Mortal Sin’, available online at: https://www.horrifiedmagazine.co.uk/film/pete-walker-david-mcgillivray/

[55] Larraz, quoted in the documentary Vampyres and Other Symptoms

[56] Larraz, in ibid.

[57] Larraz, in ibid.

[58] See ‘A High Stakes Enterprise’, an interview with Brian Smedley-Aston

[59] Smedley-Aston, in ibid.

[60] Smedley-Aston, in ibid.

Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis

PhD, MA, BA(Hons), PGCE, FHEA | Writer: pajlewis.contently.com | Community Photographer | Filmmaker @ grimnirpictures.co.uk | Film / Lit / Photo Lecturer | Cinephile

The Wicker Man at 50 : Soundtrack to Summerisle.

The Wicker Man at 50: Soundtrack to Summerisle

To celebrate The Wicker Man at 50, English Bob reflects on the soundtrack and the sounds that inspired Paul Giovanni, accompanied by a two-hour radio show ‘Soundtrack to Summerisle’...