Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Jose Ramon Larraz

Spanish director Jose Ramon Larrez passed away recently leaving a stash of uniquely warped horror films still yet to be properly rediscovered and whilst I admit they probably wouldn’t feel half as grubby if you could pick them up as digitally re-mastered directors cuts with hours of extraneous blether it’s a real shame that they are currently denied a wider audience whilst less worthy gobbets of ‘70s trash are endlessly repackaged and sold anew to the sweaty horror hordes and exploitation freaks.

Beginning his career in Spain as a comic writer for magazines such as Pilote and Spirou he moved into films, and to England in the late sixties, and made a handful of films here, starting with Whirlpool in 1970, before moving back to Spain in 1976. The handful of his films I have seen all begin with a trip into an English countryside and end in insanity and perversion. The landscape here is anything but bucolic and verdant, instead it’s dank, autumnal and decaying; the ravening hillbilly horde of American exploitation films replaced by the corrupt English upper classes rotting in their dilapidated stately homes, feeding their sick desires and losing their grip on reality. 1971’s sleazefest ‘Deviation’ is a real period piece of sinister hippies, mind altering drugs and gratuitous kaleidoscopic orgies. A middle-aged dirt bag and his gorgeous, under-appreciated mistress (to be honest the idea that this extremely attractive young lady would ever give the time of day to this pallid extra from The Sweeney is the only real point in ‘Deviation’ where I had to really overcome a sense of incredulity) are driving through the woods in the rain when hit someone and careen into a tree. Fortunately a hip young brother and sister are at hand to rescue the couple and offer them shelter in their nearby mansion. Unfortunately for the bruised duo the brother has an unhealthy penchant for taxidermy and his sister is an excitable sex killer. It never rains but it pours, eh? Soon the unfaithful husband is dead in the basement and his young mistress is getting doped up to the eyeballs and indulging in sinister sex orgies with a group of seedy longhairs.

It’s as much fun as it sounds, with wigged out psych rock accompanying the orgies and the film manages to maintain a real level of homely sleaze with dirty, supposedly respectable, old men pawing nubile female flesh and slobbering uncontrollably. The initial drabness of the opening scenes in urban London are only emphasised by the cheap film stock. The dirty pub, the cheaply made car, the shitty clothes of our heroes reek of stale cigarette smoke and local pubs and it’s hardly surprising they make a break for the countryside and Olivia begins to enjoy the wild bohemia of her hosts (although to be fair she doesn’t know her fella is dead and being skinned downstairs). They’re better dressed, better looking and have some killer drugs- what’s not to like? The fancy dress shop Manson Family hippies look a little daft but are played by some genuinely sweaty and ugly characters and are suitably unpleasant. Although no means a masterpiece Deviation is a surprisingly effective and enjoyable slice of salacious delirium.

In comparison, 1974’s ‘Symptoms’ is a far more upmarket and restrained affair and was nominated for Cannes that year. The convalescent Helen (who is recovering from something unmentionable) takes a trip back to her dilapidated stately home in the English countryside accompanied by concerned girlfriend Ann. The friends make themselves at home in the house but there are constant reminders of Helen’s past, a raven haired beauty who is seemingly no longer with us and who in the opening sequences is seen cavorting with the silent and repulsive handy man played by Peter Vaughan. As the voices in the attic increase in volume, Helen becomes increasingly agitated about what’s in the nearby lake. After the cheap thrills of Deviation I was expecting the simmering undertones between Helen and Ann to erupt into something far more explicit but Symptoms is an altogether more restrained and tense film that reminded me of a rural Repulsion at points. Larraz imbues the willows and lakes that surround the house with a hazy, late summer quality that clashes with and exacerbates the growing sense of unease and disgust. Ok, you’ve probably seen a dozen films with similar plots but there’s a claustrophobic sense of intimacy between the three main characters that entraps you and Angela Pleasance (yup, Donald’s daughter) gives Helen an awkward unearthliness that endears as much as it spooks. Unsurprisingly things don’t end well and the film spirals into murderous delusion and bloodshed.

Through both films there’s a standoff between the aged squares and the young, demented main characters. The perverted old chemist covering up the drug abuse in an attempt to sleep with the disturbed but stunning sister in Deviation, the nosy but uncomprehending locals in Symptoms, the old simply cannot understand the problems and perversions of the youth of today...

1974’s ‘Vampyres’ is perhaps Larraz’s most well known flick and certainly the only one readily available in the UK. In the film’s prelude two beautiful women (Marianne Morris and Playboy centrefold Anulka) are shot and murdered by a mysterious stranger whilst in the throes of a passionate embrace. This act of random violence seemingly transforms them into the eponymous vampires and we next meet them roaming the countryside in rather conspicuous black cloaks flagging down passing male motorists. Once these unpleasant specimens of ‘70s chauvinistic manhood are lured back to the crumbling castle in the hope of a fumble they are quickly plied with wine and drained of blood. Into this bedlam stumble a dull young couple on a caravanning holiday, parking up in the castle grounds. It’s almost as if the main characters from a particularly dull 70’s sitcom had escaped their studio bound set and unknowingly careened into a bloodbath. The young wife becomes intrigued by the comings and goings of the black clad vampires and their constant stream of male visitors whilst her husband is only really interested in fishing. Our heroine’s growing fascination in the nocturnal goings on of her neighbours reflects the boredom of her dull, suburban lifestyle and links her with the heroine of Deviation, both sick of the monotony of the straight lifestyle and both yearning to break out into the other side; sick, wild and exciting!

I won’t spoil anything for you, potential viewer, but let’s just say that the ensuing Scooby Doo styled investigations lead to mass bloodshed and an oddly gruelling and cruel end to the film in which our heroine finds that excitement she’s been looking for and most assuredly regrets it. Vampyres is a strange film by all accounts; whilst certainly camp in places it still maintains a dislocated, eerie feel that is unsettling. The subtlety of Symptoms has gone (“They shared the pleasures of the flesh and the horrors of the grave!” bawls the one-sheet) and is replaced with no holds barred sleaze. Whilst somewhat reminiscent of Jean Rollins or Franco in places, it’s closer to Norman J Warren (Satan’s Slave) brand of suburban trash. Hypnotic and ethereal this isn’t. Larraz created a strange vision of 1970s Britain where characters attempt to escape their humdrum grotty soap opera confines into a countryside that’s dripping filth and violence. It’s an oddly compelling vision and one that I think still entices. Compared with many directors lurking under the surface he was absurdly talented and with the advent of the 2011 documentary, Of Vampyres and other Symptoms, I can only hope that his films are soon to claw their way from the crypt and get the attention they deserve.

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