Welcome to La Residencia, a borderline reform school packed with over-blossoming maidens and presided over by a whacked-out head-mistress played to the hilt by Lili Palmer. It’s true that the murder “mystery” is instantly guessable, but this is a beautifully made gothic chiller with superb performances all around. Also features great cinematography and music. The award-winning script is steeped in classical references and reveals a swirling morass of sexual and political repression. A moody, spooky masterpiece.
A lavish Spanish production much more in the style of Henri-Georges Clouzot than, say, Jess Franco, this is a real find, an underrated, virtually forgotten thriller undeserving of the pithy treatment given the picture by Elvira & Co. Though its denouement is a disappointment, it’s a class production all the way though the poor if letterboxed transfer hardly does the film justice.
The picture, released in Spain as La Residencia (“The Residence”), may have been an influence on Dario Argento’s Suspira (1977); both are set at an all-girl academy and Lilli Palmer’s icy headmistress, Mme. Fourneau, is very much like Alida Valli’s similarly austere character in Argento’s picture. Set in late-19th century France, the story mainly follows new girl Theresa (giallo star Cristina Galbo), the daughter of a single-mother cabaret dancer (and/or prostitute), shipped off to the boarding school Fourneau runs with an iron fist.
Theresa adjusts to her new life fairly well all things considered, though sadistic head girl – and coded lesbian – Irene (Mary Maude, whose looks suggest Barbara Steele) plots to humiliate her. Meanwhile, Isabelle (Maribel Martin), in love with Fourneau’s teenage son, Luis (John Moulder-Brown) is brutally murdered, her throat cut, but as her body never turns up it’s assumed that the girl has merely run away. Later, Theresa likewise befriends Peeping Tom Luis after he’s trapped in a boiler room vent trying to get a looksee at the girls taking showers, but soon thereafter plans to run away herself to escape Irene’s brutality.
Directed by Narciso Ibanez Serrador (Who Can Kill a Child?), The House That Screamed surprisingly was condemned in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Horror Movies as “cynically sexploitative” and “offensively misogynist.” Beyond the irony that Hardy’s book heaps mounds of praise on many of Jess Franco’s inept and far more crassly-made horror-sex films, the reality is The House That Screamed is almost too restrained and tasteful for its own good. It’s certainly nothing like Hardy’s book suggests: though ultimately downbeat the picture is nearly as Victorian as its setting – the girls even take showers demurely clothed in undergarments.
After a slow start, the film builds to some enormously atmospheric set pieces that are genuinely creepy, approaching in the style of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) and Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). Key to this are the film’s stunning Franscope cinematography and Waldo de los Rios’s moodily effective score. Manuel Berenguer’s (King of Kings, 1964’s The Thin Red Line) camera backwardly tracks through the school from room-to-room a la Stanley Kubrick, and the superb lighting exemplify the obvious care that went into the production.