Underappreciated Spanish director José Larraz made his first five films in Britain, and his best-known and most reputable, the psychological mystery Symptoms, even represented the UK at the Cannes Film Festival in 1974. The isolated mansion of Symptoms, where obsessive passions dangerously brew, the surrounding damp, leaf-littered woods and the murky river hiding buried secrets, were already present in Larraz’s more lurid directorial debut, Whirlpool (1970), the story of an aspiring model enticed to the countryside by a sophisticated older woman to take pictures with her solitary photographer nephew.
Again set amid the gloomy dankness of the British landscape, Vampyres (1974) makes superb use of the spectacular Gothic architecture of Oakley Court, turning its daunting turrets into a claustrophobic hothouse of feverish sensuality. Like Symptoms, Vampyres centres on a lesbian relationship, in this case the bond uniting two wild and carnal female vampires who share the same frenzied devouring urges. In their encounters with their preys, the transition from the amorous to the murderous is swift and seamless, underlining the raw violence of desire. There is an oneiric feel to the films Larraz made in that period, and Vampyres is no exception, its circular narrative adding to its ambiguity.
The Coming of Sin (1978), made in Spain, relocates Larraz’s thematic motifs to a sun-drenched land of reeds, rivers, flamenco and gypsies. As in Whirlpool, a remote house is the setting for an intensely erotic threesome pervaded with menace and a persistent uncertainty about who really is the aggressor. The narrative may be fairly nonsensical, but the dreamlike atmosphere, deeply rooted in the mystery of the land and its people, is compelling, and the succession of startling moments, from a surrealist stallion nightmare to a charged cross-dressing flamenco number, make the film deeply memorable.
DVDs: The new restorations highlight the visual richness of the films, particularly the oppressive opulence of Vampyres and the southern light of The Coming of Sin. An impressive wealth of extras are included, which help reappraise Larraz’s work, notably excerpts from a 1990 interview with the director and a brilliantly illuminating talk by Kim Newman.
Review published in Sight & Sound, Vol. 29, no. 5 (May 2019).
Picture credit: Vampyres (Dir. José Larraz, 1974)