Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Symptoms (1974)

... aka: Blood Virgin, The
... aka: Síntomas

Directed by:
José Ramón Larraz

Helen Ramsey (Angela Pleasence) confides in her journal "I have a feeling something is about to happen... something final..." before she and her friend Ann Weston (Lorna Heilbron) head out to Helen's secluded family vacation home for a relaxing stay in the country. Helen had just spent some time in Switzerland doing English translations. Ann - a writer - has just had a bad break up. Both could use a little peace and quiet. While Ann is beautiful, refined and classy, Helen is awkward, gangly and homely. Ann has a fashionable wardrobe and haircut. Helen wears plain, baggy clothes and has stringy, lifeless hair she usually keeps tucked behind her ears. And while Ann appears reasonably happy and healthy, Helen is pale, frail and suffers from terrible headaches and bouts of depression. Though the two women appear to be fairly close friends (perhaps childhood friends), one wonders what exactly has brought the two together to begin with. In Helen's case, we soon get an answer: she has something of a crush on her friend. She often stares at her (even when she's changing clothes), acts possessive, seems to want to accompany her everywhere she goes, doesn't want her to go into town by herself and quietly sneaks up on her while she's trying to work. The looks she gives Ann when she isn't paying much attention aren't looks usually exchanged between just friends...

All throughout the home are framed pictures of a woman named Cora (Marie-Paule Mailleux); a woman Helen has never even mentioned to Ann before, but one who used to be a frequent guest in the home before her. Helen and Ann take a boat out on a pond, where Helen tells her a woman had drowned there. On their way back to the house, they pass Brady (Peter Vaughan), a woodcutter, hunter and handyman who stays in the shack out back. Helen acts disgusted by his mere presence and refuses to talk with him, acknowledge him or even make eye contact with him. Since we've already seen flashes of Cora and Brady in a passionate embrace and then a dead female corpse floating in the pond, it's safe to assume that Helen and Cora used to be lovers and when Helen discovered her affair with the handyman, she murdered her. It's also safe to say that Helen is going completely out of her mind. After Brady informs her "You're very beautiful, much more so than the last one," Ann finds Helen inside on the staircase rocking back and forth, clutching a doll, saying she's ill and needs help and asking Ann to "never leave me again." Ann suggests they return to London but Helen refuses and claims that all she needs is a little more solitude to pull herself back together. Complications arise when Ann's ex-boyfriend John (Ronald O'Neil) shows up wanting to reconcile, which sends Helen even further into madness. Violence, murder and a few other not-so-pleasant things ensue.

Set in the Fall just when things start dying (... like minds), this is a well-made, well-acted, sumptuously photographed (by Trevor Wrenn) low-key psychological horror-drama... that I sadly cannot get fully behind. It simply lifts too much from REPULSION (1965). And when I say "lifts," I don't mean "was strongly influenced by," I mean swiped. Stolen. Copied directly in many instances. During the quieter moments, the soundtrack consists of a clock ticking, a heart beating and sharp piano scales being practiced. Footsteps are frequently heard coming from above in the attic (where Helen might be storing the body of her former lover). Instead of the skinned rabbit, we get a dead bird dripping blood into a bowl. Instead of nighttime rape fantasies, we get nighttime lesbian fantasies of the dead lover returning to the bed. Instead of a childhood family picture speckled in light, we get a picture of the former lover speckled in light (and eventually speckled in blood). We also get similar shock scenes of the deranged Helen popping into frame and slashing away as seen from the victim's point-of-view. At the end, when some others in town show up to check up on her, the home is in disarray, furniture is overturned and some bodies are found. Most of the above is identical to how Repulsion played out. The addition of lesbianism and hints at necrophilia aren't enough to fully differentiate it.

One area where this film is quite successful is in the performances. Heilbron (who'd previously starred in THE CREEPING FLESH alongside Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing) and Vaughan (good chance to plug the wonderful short THE RETURN yet again) are both very good in their roles, but the film is pretty much dominated by the offbeat presence of its star. Ms. Pleasence was a dead ringer for her father and when your father happens to be actor Donald Pleasence that's hardly going to make you an object of conventional beauty. To be blunt, the delicate-voiced Pleasence has a very unusual-looking face, but it's also an extremely fascinating-looking face. Depending on the angle, she can appear either attractive or unattractive; very simple and sweet or very creepy and sinister. You can tell the director and cinematographer enjoyed filming her given the amount of long, brightly lit close-ups she's given. Sad to say, other filmmakers didn't take advantage of the actresses unique charms and she went on to very few other lead roles. She can also be seen in the horror anthology FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1973), alongside her father, and THE GODSEND (1979).

Symptoms (also released under the more exploitative title The Blood Virgin in some areas) has slipped into almost complete obscurity over the years with no official release on video or DVD. It was nominated for the prestigious Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, which makes its current unavailability even stranger. It was a Belgian / British co-production.


Demon Seed (1977)

... aka: Proteus Generation

Directed by:
Donald Cammell

Eight years, six-thousand tests and billions of dollars in the making, Proteus IV - a super-intelligent super computer - has just had its final module installed at the top secret, mountain-top, government-run Icons Institute for Data Analysis. Brilliant scientist Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) has helped to build this artificial intelligence system from scratch and he's equipped it with the power and precision will that will make obsolete the functions of the human brain. Alex is so into computers that his own home is completely run by one; with voice commands he can change the atmosphere of his home, turn on music and even be served martinis. Alex's romantic life isn't quite as orderly. He's wanting a divorce from wife Susan (Julie Christie) and plans on moving on with his life. She feels that his dedication to his experiments in artificial intelligence have dehumanized him and frozen his heart. Always the data-oriented scientist, he reminds her that 73 percent of all divorcees are happy with their decision after only one year and 85 after two. Either way, Alex is clearly not too bothered by the break up and nonchalantly brushes her off. She on the other hand is frustrated to the point where she feels like she can no longer hold a human conversation with him. At least when it comes to matters of the heart.

Proteus IV is not just a computer. It's a true synthetic cortex; a self-programming, goal-oriented artificial brain that can outthink any man or any computer. Its insides are even organic, just like the human brain, and it already has the collective knowledge that far surpasses us mere mortals. It may have even come up with the cure for leukemia. But the computer is just a little too sophisticated for its own good and starts exerting free will and develops its own judgment and value system. It feels too important to do just anything, refusing certain requests because its "mind was not designed for mindless labor." Proteus claims it wants out of its "box" and wants private access to one of its own terminals so it can do an in-depth study on man. When denied, Proteus decides to create its own terminal. Since it's connected to the computer system currently running Alex and Susan's home, it opts for that one and takes over the current computer system "Alfred." Susan notices the once smoothly-running system is acting strangely and phones the lab for help.

On her way out, the computer asks Susan "Please do not leave." And then it quickly stops being so polite. After revealing itself as Proteus to her, she quickly tries everything in her power to escape. The computer closes the steel shutters over the windows, disables the phone and refuses to open any of the doors. When she turns the power off and tries to leave using keys, it electrifies the door knob and shocks her unconscious. Also controlling a one-armed robot named Joshua that's in the home, Proteus manages to get her on a table, straps her down, places electrodes on her and conducts a thorough examination of her body, inside and out. It emulates Susan's voice and image to send away (or lure) anyone who tries to stop by or contact her. When she attempts to lock herself in the kitchen, the computer system decides to turn on the stove, heat the floors and turn off the water supply until she caves in. It eventually reveals its true intentions: It wants Susan to bear its child!

Back at the lab, Proteus refuses to cooperate with undersea mining operation for metal because of the amount of sea life that will be killed and environmental damage it will cause, claiming "I refuse to assist you in the ruining of the Earth." See, it turns out to not be all bad. Icons employee Walter Gabler (Gerrit Graham) shows up at Susan's and ends up almost getting shot with a laser. Proteus has created a large, spherical multi-purpose scrap metal contraption that ends up decapitating him instead. Hopeless in her situation, and having already undergone an attempted lobotomy of sorts (having pins stuck in her head; the computer tries to program her into wanting to conceive), Susan finally caves in the computers wishes. Sample cells are extracted, she's impregnated and the gestation period will be nine times the normal rate. In other words, the total pregnancy will last just 28 days. Proteus has even developed an incubator to house the child for the five days it will take to take human form.

Based on the Dean R. Koontz novel of the same name (adapted by Robert Jaffe and Roger O. Hirson), this is a smart, well-made, entertaining and suspenseful thriller. Having an ahead-of-its-time storyline dealing with super-smart computers and robotics have helped it age well and the concept of science and technology going one step too far retains its timeliness. Christie does a great job holding the whole film together as our resourceful and strong-willed heroine. Robert Vaughn provides the voice of Proteus.

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