ON VAMPYRES AND OTHER SYMPTOMS (2011) is the clever title of a new documentary directed by Celia Novis focusing on the reclusive Spanish filmmaker, writer, and artist José Ramón Larraz. If Larraz’s name doesn’t ring any bells don’t be alarmed. Despite the fact that the 83-year-old director is well regarded by his peers which include Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, and author Stephen King, Larraz remains relatively unknown to the public at large.
Today he’s probably best remembered for making one of the most adult vampire films of the 1970s, VAMPYRES (1974), but Larraz’s macabre oeuvre includes the Palme d’Or nominated horror film SYMPTOMS (1974) as well as WHIRLPOOL (1970), DEVIATION (1971), THE HOUSE THAT VANISHED (1974), THE COMING OF SIN (1978), BLACK CANDLES (1982) and REST IN PIECES (1987) among others.
Celia Novis’s unusual and unique documentary unfolds slowly, much like one of her subject’s own films, quietly drawing you in and immersing you in Larraz’s hermetic world. Unlike typical documentaries that ask talking heads to analyze their subject, Novis takes a more creative approach that’s reminiscent of Larraz’s own films and artistic ambitions. Novis shot her film in a 4:3 format and the addition of scratchy effects gives ON VAMPYRES AND OTHER SYMPTOMS an aged appearance that’s reminiscent of the grindhouse era films that Larraz is so often associated with.
José Ramón Larraz was born in Barcelona in 1928 and his early years weren’t particularly easy or idyllic. The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) took its toll on his family but this didn’t stop Larraz from developing an early love for cinema. He was particularly fond of horror films such as DRACULA (1931) and classic ghost stories by authors like Henry James as well as Belgian author Thomas Owen resonated with the young would-be director, which inspired him to start drawing. After dropping out of college Larraz spent his early years working as a comic book artist in Paris where he mainly illustrated adventure stories aimed at a mature audience. His work was well received and the skills he developed while honing his craft undoubtedly had a profound effect on his future filmmaking efforts. Although Larraz had no formal training, his panel compositions show an artist with an inventive perspective, flair for drama and a natural ability to evoke terror that would later manifest in the movies he made.
ON VAMPYRES AND OTHER SYMPTOMS highlights José Ramón Larraz’s chance meeting with film director Josef von Sternberg in 1968 during a retrospective of the celebrated filmmaker’s work in Brussels. At the time Larraz was 40 years old and had established himself as a comic book illustrator and photographer but he’d never made any films. Josef von Sternberg apparently took an instant liking to him and the two men discussed Larraz’s personal desire to make movies, which was hindered by a lack of confidence. “What you draw and how you draw already is filmmaking.” Sternberg told Larraz, “Filmmaking is mythicized, and so is the role of the director. In fact, it is a job like any other.” Later on when Larraz expressed concern due to his lack of any formal education, Sternberg tells him “Shed away your fear! If you feel you have to shoot there is no more to say.”
Larraz took Josef von Sternberg’s advice to heart and at the age of 41 he started making his own movies. Although he apparently didn’t even know what a clapboard was when he began, Larraz didn’t let his limitations get in the way of his filmmaking ambitions. His first feature film, WHIRPOOL, was made for just £20,000 (roughly $30,000) in Britain with help from one of his comic book publishers. Critical reception was mixed but the film made quite a bit of money for a low-budget thriller. During this period Larraz became a self-described Anglophile and continued to live and work in the UK making many more imaginative and personal films in the horror and fantasy genre, which is fondly referred to as “European fantaterror” in Celia Novis’s documentary.
ON VAMPYRES AND OTHER SYMPTOMS takes a look back at Larraz’s early years through a series of comic book panels that Celia Novis brings to life with lighting effects and sweeping camera movements. These scenes are intermingled with footage of Larraz discussing his work while Novis shoots the aging director taking long walks through old cemeteries and twisted hotel hallways. These walks seem to trigger a flood of memories for Larraz and the ghosts of his past begin to materialize. The director quietly expresses his disappointment with the business side of filmmaking that he encountered at film festivals like Cannes where “exhibitionism and opportunism” were rampant. But most of the conversations revolve around his thoughts about aging, his appreciation of family, regret over lost loves, and the lack of critical respect for his work. He also discusses his lifelong fascination with the supernatural and the desire to find a new approach to the horror genre.
The documentary limits its scope by focusing its attention on two of Larraz’s most acclaimed films, VAMPYRES and SYMPTOMS, but they’re both wonderful representations of the filmmakers unique vision and contain many of the veiled themes that have interested Larraz throughout his career including his obsession with codependent relationships and ominous structures that house his protagonists and their dark secrets. Novis’ uses Larraz’s latest script, an enthusiastic sequel to VAMPYRES, to narrate and shape the content of her documentary. She also effectively manages to intermingle Larraz’s original film footage with her own as she follows her subject on a journey to receive his lifetime achievement award at the 2009 international Sitges Film Festival in Catalunya (aka Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya).
ON VAMPYRES AND OTHER SYMPTOMS might frustrate some viewers with its ambiguity but I found the viewing experience absolutely mesmerizing and very touching at times. Much like Larraz’s own films, Novis’ documentary asks the audience to put aside expectations and familiar filmmaking troops. Its evocative soundscapes, eerie visuals, and inspired editing elevated the material and turned what could have easily become a conventional documentary into an expressive tone poem that evokes dusty libraries, funeral dirges, and haunted landscapes. Besides its artistic ambitions, the documentary is also a thoughtful meditation on the very nature of fear itself and it should be applauded for shining some much-needed light on a talented director who deserves more critical attention.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com in 2012