Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The House That Screamed (1969) Review: Revenge of the Repressed




Common knowledge dictates that if a film is good, it will be rewarded through various means of distribution (TV, VHS, DVD, and so on) for years and decades after its release so that multiple generations of viewers can enjoy it. Yet if you’re a veteran horror film fan like me, you know that not all high-quality shockers are rewarded with studio-facilitated longevity. One noteworthy example of this unfairness is the film I am reviewing in this post: The House That Screamed (a.k.a. La Residencia, a.k.a. The Boarding School), a 1969 gothic horror film from Spain that was written and directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador.

Despite its ample display of talents both in front of and behind the camera, The House That Screamed didn’t achieve much success during its initial release and it never found a worthy means of distribution since then. Over the years, the film has been released under different titles and different edits; its most current release in the U.S. is part of a double bill on a DVD in the Elvira’s Movie Macabre series. (You can also see it on YouTube here.) This is a shame, because this a film that deserves so much more--rarely are horror films as sumptuous as The House That Screamed, and it deserves to truly shine in a Blu-ray format. Read on for my complete review.

The House That Screamed begins with the admittance of new student, Teresa (Cristina Galbó), at a boarding school in late 19th century France. While Headmistress Fourneau (Lilli Palmer) insists that her school is an institution of refinement and higher learning, it is actually a draconian reformatory for teenage girls with “troubled” behaviors and backgrounds. When Teresa arrives, the school has been placed under tight security to deter the students from running away, as several have already done. However, what no one appears to realize is that the girls haven’t been running away at all--they’ve been brutally murdered by an unseen killer who stalks the halls of the school, and anyone could be the next victim.



The House That Screamed has a unique pedigree: It’s a Spanish production with an English cast that takes place in a French setting and was made with the intent of international distribution. From what I have been able to gather, this film has been dubbed over so many times as part of its initial and subsequent releases that the only surviving English language track is in desperate need of remastering. With such a wide range of distribution planned for its release, Serrador spared no expense at making this a high-quality movie. Even in its current unaltered state, The House That Screamed is gorgeous to look at, with sharp cinematography and detailed set design. Its musical score by Waldo de los Ríos perfectly matches the film’s ornate visuals, and its main theme--a haunting, creepy waltz--will stick with you after the end credits roll. If Hammer Studios had decided to make a slasher movie during its heyday, it probably would’ve looked and sounded like The House That Screamed.

Because The House That Screamed is a horror film that takes place in a girl’s school, it has far too often been lumped together with low-budget (s)exploitation films that use all-female settings (boarding schools, prisons, convents, etc.) as opportunities for titillating sex, nudity and violence. However, Serrador’s film is the polar opposite of its grindhouse counterparts in that it is an exploration of the fears and tensions that arise from emotional and sexual repression through physical and psychological abuse, not a voyeuristic depiction of humiliation and sadomasochistic debauchery. Serrador shows just enough of the abuses and moral failings at Fourneau’s school to let us know that it is far from the civilizing force that Fourneau believes it to be, but those portrayals are a small part of the movie. Most of the school’s atrocities are left to your imagination and remain unseen, securely hidden behind the school’s many locked doors and secret rooms, although they make their presence known though the strained, nervous exchanges the students have with Fourneau. Overall, it’s a very restrained film that burns at a slow boil, taking its time to give you all of the details you need to make sense of its gruesome, insane ending.



Serrador ably directed his cast to sustain the film’s mood of quiet nervousness and dread, with the most compelling performances provided by Palmer, Galbó, and Mary Maude, who plays Fourneau's contemptuous student assistant Irene. Such a sustained mood heightens the shock of the on-screen killings, of which there are few; most of the killings happen off-screen--like the aforementioned abuses--but that doesn’t dull the impact of the film’s ending. That said, I highly recommend that you avoid most other reviews and descriptions of this movie if you want to get the most out of it. I’ve noticed that many of them give away key plot points, including the ending. (Schmucks.)

As the film draws to its conclusion, the killer’s identity becomes more obvious; indeed, the identity of the killer is less shocking than the killer’s motive. Yet for all of the film’s deliberate red herrings, I don’t think that Serrador wrote and directed this film as a mystery but as a criticism of oppressive, authoritarian regimes that are rife with corruption and where dissidents have a tendency to “disappear” without explanation. Serrador was born in Uruguay and he moved with his family to Spain during his adolescence in 1947 during the dictatorship of fascist leader Francisco Franco, which lasted between 1936 and 1975. Even though I can’t confirm that this was Serrador’s intent behind his movie, I think it’s a plausible possibility since his film was intended for international release and thus would maintain his vision in other countries even if it met with disapproval from Franco and his supporters. In light of this historical and thematic background, I would say that The House That Screamed is a spiritual predecessor of sorts to Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone.

The House That Screamed is a rare find: It’s an exquisite horror film from another era that didn’t find the appreciation and distribution that it deserved in the decades since its initial release. For those of you who enjoy finding such rare diamonds of horror cinema, this film is for you.



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