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The House that Screamed

by Glenn Erickson Feb 21, 2023

What makes Franco-era Spanish horror so horrible?  The unnecessary cruelty and emphatic nastiness, a combination that’s led to more than a few essays about political repression. Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s shocker puts psycho headmistress Lilli Palmer in charge of a twisted girl’s boarding school. Get ready for ice-cold Women-In-Prison intrigues, with macabre carnage for a chaser. Arrow Video’s pristine new encoding is already being applauded — it far surpasses edited, color-challenged older releases, revealing a beautifully-produced thriller with fine lighting cinematography.


The House That Screamed
Blu-ray
Arrow Video
1969 / Color / 2:39 widescreen / 105 + 94 min. / La Residencia, The Finishing School / Street Date March 7, 2023 / Available from / 39.95
Starring: Lilli Palmer, Cristina Galbó, John Moulder-Brown, Maribel Martín, Mary Maude, Pauline Challoner, Tomás Blanco, Víctor Israel, Teresa Hurtado.
Cinematography: Manuel Berenguer
Production Designer and Art Director: Ramiro Gómez
Costume Design Victor Marí Cortezo
Film Editors: Mercedes Alonso, Reginald Mills
Original Music: Waldo de los Ríos
Written by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador original story by Juan Tébar
Produced by Arturo González
Directed by
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador

Histories of Spanish horror sometimes skip over Jésus Franco’s work, as well as Paul Naschy’s ragged monster romps, to give 1969’s La residencia aka The House That Screamed a place of honor as the beginning of the Spanish horror renaissance. Director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador had spent a decade writing and directing for TV, including a number of horror tales. He also penned the screenplay for Obras maestras del terror, directed by and starring his father Narciso Ibáñez Menta, the ‘Argentinian Vincent Price.’ Serrador’s first feature La residencia is no low-budget affair, but filmed in color and Franscope, with some prints blown up to 70mm. Toplined by the respected star Lilli Palmer, the production is first-class all the way.

Franco’s Spain encouraged film production with the proviso that topical political subject matter was taboo. Samuel Bronston’s epics, filmed in Spain, are costume pictures set long before the contentious Civil War, and therefore ruffled no political feathers. La residencia is likewise a period thriller set in the past, in France — its horrors aren’t directly associated with Spanish society.

 

The horror is psychological, not superstitious, depicting gruesome murders in a women’s dormitory warped by psycho-sexual sickness. Madame Fourneau (Lilli Palmer) welcomes new boarding student Teresa (Cristina Galbó) with a tour of the school’s facilities in a large, imposing mansion in a walled estate. Fourneau assures Teresa’s guardian that she runs the place with a firm hand, for some of her pupils are behavior problems. Teresa soon discovers that she’s landed in a snake pit of repressed sexuality. Some of the students seem enrolled because their parents don’t want them around. The place is run like a jail, with a regimented schedule and draconian rules.

Student Irene (Mary Maude of Crucible of Terror) is Mlle Fourneau’s special appointee, a trusty who enforces discipline, and who wields the whip when Fourneau dispenses punishments to girls that resist her authority. Irene ringleads other activities she keeps secret from the headmistress. A local man delivers weekly loads of firewood, and Irene decides which girl can join him in an outbuilding for sex. Irene dictates which girls can sneak away to see Louis, too.

Irene sneers at Teresa’s innocence and singles her out for special treatment. Teresa is warned that she must do whatever Irene says; in a cruel hazing session, Teresa is taunted with the accusation that her mother is a prostitute.

 

Mlle Fourneau’s sickly teenage son Louis (John Moulder-Brown) lives in the house as well. He’s supposed to stay separate from the young women, but spies on them at every opportunity. In one sequence he crawls into an access duct to peep at the girls in the shower room. Clearly fixated on her son, Fourneau visits him at night to insist that none of the students are good enough for him, that he will someday find a woman ‘like his mother.’ She bids Louis goodnight by kissing him full on the lips.

The perverse misuse of authority does indeed make La residencia play as a critique of political power. The students come from families that can pay Fourneau’s tuition; they’re a good cross section of turn-of-the-century teens. Some are passive and others resist the systematized pecking order of restrictions and casual cruelties. The insolent rebel Catalina (Pauline Challoner) receives a savage formal whipping for brazenly defying Fournier. Isabelle (Maribel Martín of Vicente Aranda’s La novia ensangretada) sneaks out at night for a rendezvous in the greenhouse. The sensitive and fair-minded Teresa makes an effort to befriend the mysterious Louis — without Irene’s permission.

When the murders commence and girls begin to go missing, La residencia becomes a succession of creepy midnight wanderings down dark corridors. Girls sneak about to see boys, betray each other, and spy for Fourneau.

Pauline Challoner, Mary Maude, Cristina Galbó, Maribel Martín.
 

Many Italian giallos are critized for what became blatant misogyny. More often than not, the sole subject at hand is the slaughter of attractive undressed women, displaying their terror and agony as prime entertainment value. La residencia has no direct nudity to inflame the censors in Madrid. When the girls take showers, they do so wearing thin cotton shower dresses. Serrador & company avoid confronting the most censorable material through cinematic stylization. Before a sex scene in a shed can go beyond a kiss, Serrador cuts away to the other girls back in the house. Close-ups show each girl thinking about what their colleague is doing, and makes the connection explicit by overlaying just the audio of the sex encounter.

The intimations of lesbian lust must have been disturbing in Spain of 1969. The theme is carried exclusively in wanton looks. Irene taunts Teresa with a perverse smirk-stare that sends shivers down the girl’s spine. The midnight ‘inquisition’ is clearly designed to prepare Teresa to be her toy.

On the other hand, Lilli Palmer’s Mlle Fourneur tries to deny her impulses and hide her own sexual instability. She doesn’t normally oversee shower day, and quivers nervously through the whole thing, especially when Catalina taunts her by taking off her shower dress. The clear message is that unchecked power always results in sexual abuses.

The identity of the killer is not very well hidden, but its eventual reveal is more gruesome than anything we expected. Instead of depicting the gory murders straight on, director Serrador again sidesteps censor intervention with editorial stylization. One slaying is presented as a near-abstract montage, overlaying superimpositions of a plunging knife. Another is curtailed with a freeze-frame.

As La residencia still showcases bloody violence and ‘unclean’ thoughts, Serrador and his producer Arturo González must have done some fancy footwork in negotiations, pointing out that they had followed the letter of the rules. They surely argued that the film was less violent and less sexually explicit than some of the foreign pictures the authorities were admitting into the country.

 

Well directed, acted and photographed, La residencia is exploitation filmmaking given a surprisingly classy presentation. It’s not difficult to find lapses of logic in the narrative. We never quite believe that the work staff at this hellhole could be so naïve as to keep its secrets from the outside world. Not only that, but when students disappear, Mlle Fourneau never so much as notifies the authorities.

Spoiler-ish:  When the storyline rushes to a horror climax, all niceties are dropped:  forget relationships and human values and just make awful, horrible things happen. The heart goes out of the film when the most innocent are sacrificed. In the final reel one of the cruelest students suddenly becomes a replacement heroine figure, but the ice-cold story spares nobody.

A couple of the young actresses are English in origin, as is former child actor John Moulder-Brown. Madrileña Cristina Galbó later starred in Jorge Grau’s Spanish horror picture No profanar el sueño de los muertos, an excellent zombie shocker set in present-day England.

International star Lilli Palmer has always been a favorite. She raises the level of anything she’s in, and after 40 years barely seemed to age. Palmer may have been cast in this show because of her association with similar story material: in 1958 she starred with Romy Schneider in 1958’s Mädchen in Uniform, a remake of the 1931 original. The story of a harsh Prussian boarding school becomes controversial when a lonely student falls in love with her teacher and enters into a ‘forbidden’ relationship.

Palmer’s final film was released a full 32 years after her death in 1986. She’s one of scores of noted actors that contributed scenes or cameos for Orson Welles’ famously abandoned feature The Other Side of the Wind, filmed in the first half of the 1970s. The picture was finally finished and released in 2018, through Netflix. As always, she looks terrific.

 


 

Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of The House That Screamed will be a revelation to horror fans frustrated by earlier home video presentations. I tried once to see it thirty years ago on VHS, but bailed when confronted with a bleary pan-scanned image with one color, brown. We’re informed by Nathaniel Thompson that the only full-length versions available before Arrow’s had patchy video quality.

Arrow Films produced the new 2K restoration ‘from the original negative,’ and the results are pretty spectacular. The moody school interiors are designed to avoid bright colors, but are no longer just a brown-greenish blur. The very wide Franscope image looks great with only a few shots displaying anamorphic distortion. The improved color and texture allow us to appreciate the handsome, well-designed costumes. The cruel overseer Fourneau and her Kapo Irene wear male neckties. The hairstyles are also expressive of the period.

Of especial note is Waldo de los Ríos’ symphonic score, which comes across well on the mono soundtrack. The romantic main theme must represent the respectable image the school presents to the outside world. When the suspense cues take over they make a big contribution to the film’s tension.

 

Arrow gives us both versions of the film, giving us a choice between the 94-minute U.S. release The House That Screamed and the full-length 105-minute export version The Finishing School. The film’s dialogue appears to have been primarily performed in English. The 105-minute cut also comes with a Spanish track; both languages are post-dubbed. [Note: one of my Blu-ray players wouldn’t access the Spanish track or subtitles, not that I wanted to play the film that way.]

The extras submit La residencia to several academics and historians, starting with film programmer and curator Anna Bogutskaya’s audio commentary. She’s also the co-founder of the horror film collective The Final Girls. Dr. Antonio Lázaro-Reboll, co-editor of a book on Jésus Franco, contributes a video examination of the film and its director. Serrador’s other noted horror film is the contemporary-set, more pointedly political thriller ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child?)

 

New interviews with actor John Moulder-Brown, author Juan Tébar and Serrador’s son Alejandro cover the production end of the story. Actress Mary Maude is interviewed at a festival screening, in a video piece from 2012. The insert booklet holds an essay by Shelagh Rowan-Legg, a writer, filmmaker and Executive Director of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. She seems aptly chosen, as the author of The Spanish Fantastic: Contemporary Filmmaking in Horror, Fantasy, and Sci Fi.

The presentation will satisfy any film fan’s need for academic observation and opinion. Come on, video boutiques, when finding Sci-fi experts, try to tap more people than the current Usual Suspects (and I don’t mean me). Other extras are listed below.

We were pleasantly surprised by The House that Screamed / La residencia. We expected something much less accomplished, as the 1985 Hardy Encyclopedia of Horror all but dismisses it as terminally misogynistic. The film’s bright cast and atmospheric visuals are enjoyable on their own. Seen in this superb presentation, we become invested in the jeopardy scenario . . . a strategy that backfires when the characters we like most are carved up for table scraps.

Remember, películas de terror Españolas must always be horrible. The show is fundamentally cruel and heartless, but for quality it is much higher than average.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The House That Screamed
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English on both, Spanish also on the long version
New Supplements:
Audio commentary by Anna Bogutskaya
Interview This Boy’s Innocence, an interview with John Moulder-Brown
Interview All About My Mama with Juan Tébar, original story author
Interview The Legacy of Terror with the director’s son, Alejandro Ibáñez
Interview Screaming the House Down with Dr. Antonio Lázaro-Reboll
2012 interview with Mary Maude, from the stage of the Festival of Fantastic Films
Alternate Spanish version footage
Trailers, TV and radio spots, image gallery
Illustrated 24-page booklet with essay by Shelagh Rowan-Legg
Double-sided poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Colin Murdoch.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only) Spanish (long version only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
February 20, 2023
(6886resi)
CINESAVANT

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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

Here’s Mick Garris on The House that Screamed:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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