Symptoms: the lost classic of 70s horror is back

This stylishly creepy film was the British selection for Cannes in 1974 but for the years since has only been available on poor VHS copies. Then, in 2014, a negative was discovered…

Josephine Botting
Updated:

Symptoms (1974)

Symptoms (1974)

The launch of the BFI Most Wanted project back in 2010 gave the archive’s curators an opportunity to bring to light British films which had slipped through the cracks between rights-holders and archives.

To compile the list of 75 titles, we cast our net across the organisation and asked BFI colleagues which hard-to-see British films they felt should be preserved in the collection. Inevitably, personal taste came into play and many of the titles had strong advocates who made an excellent case for pursuing the film for the archive. We ended up with a wide range of films, from Hitchcock’s only missing silent (The Mountain Eagle, 1926) to titles which may appear less worthy but are just as valuable from a historical and cultural perspective.

Among these are several examples of film genres often viewed less kindly by history, such as the science fiction title The First Men in the Moon (1919), the first H.G. Wells adaptation; the mad scientist film Castle Sinister (1932); and northern comic Frank Randle doing his schtick in Somewhere in Politics from 1948. But the jewel in the crown of these less respectable offerings is the 1974 psychological horror Symptoms, long celebrated by fans of the gothic but only available on the hazy VHS copies which circulated among them.

Symptoms (1974)

Symptoms (1974)

The film’s cult reputation belies its subtleties and it plays a little like a version of Repulsion (1965) set in the English countryside, its gentle pace and sensitive performances complemented by the effective sound design and a fantastic score by jazz composer John Scott. In fact, it was selected to be the British submission to Cannes in 1974 and garnered some artistic kudos for its Catalonian director José Larraz, up till then associated with rather more blatant horror.

Funding for the film had come from Jean Dupuis, Belgian heir to the fortune generated by the success of The Smurfs, who had decided to go into film production and set up a company in the UK. After the release of Symptoms, Dupuis returned to Belgium and the negative was consigned to vault in a west London facilities house.

Symptoms (1974)

Symptoms (1974)

We began our search for it six years ago, but enquiries drew a blank until, in 2014, Deluxe got in touch to say they were storing the negative. Dupuis arranged for it to be released to the BFI and it was sent on to the Belgian Cinematek for scanning.

The rediscovery of the negative of Symptoms has been the greatest coup for the BFI Most Wanted project thus far. The digital file provided by the Cinematek has been cleaned up and now looks and sounds spotless, bringing the film back to its original glory.

It’s now released as a Dual Format (Blu-ray and DVD) edition by the BFI, accompanied by filmed interviews with the two female stars, Angela Pleasence (daughter of Donald) and Lorna Heilbron, and editor Brian Smedley Aston. It’s also available to watch on BFI Player.

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