The horror of all-girl schools: Spanish style!
This little known Spanish shocker tells the story of a naive teenage girl who arrives at a boarding school with a very dark (and dangerous) secret, all told in the most spooky and stylish way possible.
Narciso Ibañez Serrador was already a very respected director in his native Spain by the time he released La Residencia in 1969, his first theatrical movie. Before (and after) it, he was a regular director in the famous series of TV movies “Historias Para No Dormir”, a show that lasted 18 years and had a very unexpected impact on Spanish horror industry. Although he was considered one of his country’s finest auteurs, he was practically unknown outside Spain, a fact that drastically changed after he released the movie. With The House that Screamed, as it was called internationally, the door to the popular European market went wide open, being a huge success in the old continent.
Why did it do so well, you may ask, with such a hard competition it had that year? (1969 is one of the busiest years of European cult cinema, with a lot of titles being release, from Jess Franco sleaze to hammer horror sequels)
Written by the multifaceted Spanish personality Juan Tebar, a very important man in Spanish’s culture, with works credited as a critic, screen player, novelist and even movie director, the film starts with a teenage girl, Teresa (Cristina Galbó), who is about to be matriculated in an exclusive all-girls boarding school lead by a strict headmistress, Mrs. Fourneau (Lili Palmer). Once there, we see all the naughty things that happen inside the “respectable” academy. Lesbianism, rampant sex, severe corporal punishment and the strange disappearance of several girls are an every day thing.
We also meet very interesting characters, like Irene (Mary Maude), a student who is also Fourneau’s bitch, and is in charge of informing the headmistress everything that happens among the girls. Of course, this leads to Irene using her power against the girls, forcing them to act at her demands. Luis (John Moulder Brown), who is the headmistress’ son, is not allowed to meet the students or go out of the house, so he has fun peeping on the girls while they take showers. And last but not least, we have Isabelle (Maribel Martin), a young student who meets secretly with Luis while his mother isn’t watching. They’re in love, but as in every good horror movie, there’s a serial killer inside the residence, to spice up things a little.
Now for the importance of the film, which was a very daring project for it’s time in Spain, both for showing graphic violence and having strong sexual undertones. At the time, the country was under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who kept a strict censorship during his government that lasted from 1936 until his death in 1975, so Serrador was one of the few directors that had the guts to show this kind of things, especially the violence. He included stabbings, throat slashes and whipping, something that had never been done before. The sexuality is also very present mostly at the form of lesbian insinuations, a very taboo topic for it’s time. Despite showing no nudity, the movie was highly controversial for its strong subject matter. Fortunately, the film was released without significant cuts pretty much everywhere.
Controversies and historical importance aside, La Residencia remains an extremely well done film. A big part of this is credited definitely to Ibañez Serrador’s wonderful direction. Depicting his natural talent for gorgeous shots and creative camera movements, the film looks excellent. Many consider this to be a big influence on Dario Argento’s visual style, which is indeed evident when watching The House that Screamed back-to-back with : From how both directors transmit fear to the viewer, to the way the residence is decorated, giving both movies a very artistic feel . The set designs of the house are beautiful, with great color themes and contrasts. Certainly another impressive part of the film’s visual impact comes with the murder sequences, a point we we’ll now go into detail.
Continuing with the positive points of the movie, I have to mention the incredible performances in display. We all know European horror films aren’t famous for having very talented actors, but La Residencia is certainly the exception, as all of the performers portray their characters from good to awesomely.
Lili Palmer leads the bunch as the strict and cold blooded headmistress, giving a very strong performance. You really hate the woman! Palmer is no stranger to cinema, a German actress who’s very respected for appearing in several classics such as , or .
As our main student, we have the lovely Cristina Galbó, who perfectly portrays the innocence of her character, making for a very likeable heroine. She may be a familiar face to horror fanatic, since she starred in 3 other classics of European cult cinema:, and in 1975.
For many, the real revelation of the movie, acting wise, is Mary Maude, a practically unknown actress before and after the movie’s release. She’s perfect as the cruel and mean spirited Irene. She also makes a drastic personality change near the climax of the movie, a opportunity to show her abilities as an actress.
The rest of the cast, while giving adequate performances, do not live up to the female leading trio. Still, it’s nice to see the faces of Maribel Martin from the lesbian vampire flickor John Moulder Brown from .
Another important lead in the movie is certain music I previously mentioned, Waldo de los Rios’ wonderful score, subtle and very creepy music. It gives the suspense scenes levels of almost unbearable tension. Great stuff indeed.
Leading to our last point, the flaws. Every movie has them, but fortunately, La Residencia only has a few. Most of them are according to the dubbing of the movie. As Palmer and Brown were British, they filmed their part in English, while the rest of the cast did their part in Spanish, leading to obvious problems in the sound department. Still, it’s barely noticeable in the final version.
Another thing that may not be of everyone’s likeness, the films is very slow. It really takes a lot of time to get going, building slowly (and safely) a horrific atmosphere, so if you’re looking for a fast paced action horror film, stay away…
So, bottom line here: Watch this movie as soon as possible! It’s a very original and one of the most stylish movies of European cinema. It bears a gothic resemblance to Mario Bava’s movies (although not falling in copying), mixed with a giallo like plot, which should appeal to every genre fan. Even if Narciso Ibañez Serrador only made one other horror movie (the popular and more exploitative), he should be considered among the masters of the genre. Really, an underrated genious!
So, it is truly one of the best Spanish horror movies ever made, and a great starting point for Spanish horror first timers.
As I was saying, the murder sequences in the movie are another of its highlights. Even if there are only 3 during the whole 99 minutes of running time (and one of them occurring off screen), they’re so well executed and carefully filmed that they are sure to leave a big impression on the viewer.
The first one happens about 40 minutes into the movie, the victim being the young blonde student played by Maribel Martin. Serrador’s decided camera show us how the girl goes to meet Lili Palmer’s son to the school’s greenhouse, only to meet her fatal demise instead. All filmed in stylish slow motion, she’s stabbed to death as Waldo de los Rios’s moody music starts fading away, just like her life. A breath taking scene that’s for sure!
The second murder is truly a surprising one to say the least. Just when we thought Teresa was our lead, Narciso goes all “Psycho” on us and decides to kill her off, just after the hour mark. This time, we follow Cristina’s character as she tries to escape the boarding house. Seeing her slowly walking through the residence’s gothic corridors is a truly scary moment, among the best of the horror genre. While she’s trying to get to the dinning room and try open a window, she stumbles upon a bell, which she unintentionally makes it sound. Wishing nobody hear her, she stands there in fright, as the viewer’s heart is almost stopping by now. Thankfully, she’s saved, or at least that’s what she thinks. Teresa gets to the window and as she tries to open it, we hear the bell again. Someone is there, but we know she isn’t going to get killed. I mean, she’s our (very likeable) heroine! Wrong: To our shock, she gets her throat slashed, with the exact moment before the blade getting to her pretty skin being frozen, leading to an unbelievable tension.
I’m also using this section to discuss the chilling finale, which for sure has shocked many viewers over time. After Teresa’s demise, the character of Irene became our lead. Thrilled to know what is happening in the residence, she begins to suspect of the respectable Madame Fourneau, who keeps insisting the girl just ran away. One night, scared she may be the next victim of the school’s psychopath, she tries to run away. But the headmistress hears her, so she quickly tries to hide and goes up and up in the house. We now see through Miss Fourneau’s eyes. She’s chasing Irene in the dark, until she hears a sound near her…
To her shock, she finds the girl’s dead body in the floor of an attic. She’s missing her right hand! In shock, we see how yet another likeable heroine is dispatched, but Serrador doesn’t really give us much time to assimilate this: Lili Palmer goes to a room next to the body, and she creep us out with a chilling scream while we realize the shocking revelation. The killer was his son Luis, who tells her about his horrible experiments. He wants to create the perfect woman, a woman just like her mother, beautiful and strong. Obviously, he needs body parts of several young girls to fullfill his creation. After this, he leaves mommy with her new daughter-in-law, locked in the attic…Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.4