As I’ve gotten older, my tastes in horror have changed dramatically, as I’m willing to bet yours have as well. When I was in college, I was all gore all the time and zombie movies were my bread and butter. But in recent years, I’ve taken a lot more to Gothic horror, or the Italian gialli (or other ’60s and ’70s Euro slashers). I just like the style, the mood, the general creepy and undeniably repressed vibe.
Perhaps no movie embodies all of these traits more than 1970’s The House That Screamed.
Directed by Spanish filmmaker Nariciso Ibanez Serrador, The House That Screamed (known in Spanish as La residencia) was the first Spanish film to really break through on the international market, having been partially funded by the government to do exactly that. Serrador — mainly a TV director — made a true Gothic story, complete with Oedipal and Sadistic elements, revolving around a girl’s boarding school in nineteenth century France. Sooooo you can imagine the kind of thing that happens in this movie. WRONG, you cannot imagine. It’s hella weird.
The school in question is specifically for “troubled” teenage girls, who might need more discipline. The headmistress, Madame Forneau (Lilli Palmer), lords over the pupils with an iron fist. When one of the girls early on in the movie smarts off, she sends her to solitary confinement — a locked room high in the house — and later she and the head girls (led by Irene, played by Mary Maude) force the troublemaker to strip to the waist and get whipped repeatedly with a riding crop. Fun, right?
As usually happens in these types of movies, early on, a new girl arrives. She’s Teresa (Cristina Galbo) whose past is a mystery, but who was definitely not brought to the school by a parent. She tries her best to fit in, and most of the girls like her for letting them take her various corsets her mother gave her. Madame Forneau has a son named Luis (John Moulder-Brown), a quiet and unassuming teenage boy whom Forneau has forbidden any of the girls from talking to. Forneau maintains that he needs to find a girl like she used to be (creepy) and none of the girls at the school are worthy. However, he has a secret girlfriend that he meets in closets and boiler rooms, except she gets murdered one night by SOMEBODY and nobody ever finds the body. Forneau just announces that yet another girl has run away/escaped.
Some amount of time later, Luis and Teresa begin a romance, but this time Irene finds out. She tells Forneau that her son is seeing one of the girls, but doesn’t say who. This is so the older girl can torment Teresa nonstop. Irene also, for the other girls, sets up illicit trysts for them with the handsome gardener who comes by every other week, and only the girls who do right by her get the opportunity. Teresa is not one of these in Irene’s good graces, and she attempts to run away and wants Luis to come with her. But something even more malevolent than a vindictive girl or an abusive headmistress is lurking in the house.
What makes The House That Screamed so compelling is the amount of heavily disturbed and disturbing things going on within the walls that have nothing to do with the murders. In fact, after the first girl’s death, it’s never mentioned again, and it’s a long wait until we see anybody else die. Really, it’s only the third act where any of the plot comes together. Throughout the rest of the film we’re treated to buckets of gloomy, cobwebby atmosphere and repressed sexuality, from both the girls and the tightly wound and vaguely predatory headmistress.
There’s only implied nudity in this movie and the far-away knowledge that one of the girls is having sex with the gardener. As a result, Serrador is able to build on the palpable, aching sexual energy throughout the duration. Even during a group shower scene, all of the girls are made to shower while wearing white nightshirts, while Madame Forneau (and Luis hiding behind the walls) are watching. At the same time, though, there’s all this weird Oedipal stuff, where it’s pretty clear that Luis has idolized his mother both as an authority figure and as an ideal for any potential suitor, and she in turn is fixated on him as a perfect, angelic being, unworthy of any girl who isn’t her.
Even if there aren’t all that many out-and-out scare sequences, the ones we do get are gorgeous and effective. The first murder is done in slow motion, shot from the floor up at the girl and the arm and knife. There’s no shock music or anything, instead just light plinking on a piano. The second offers a huge build-up as the tension mounts towards a quick punctuation of violence. And the finale…well, it’s incredibly disturbing and makes you realize why the movie’s American title involves the word “screaming.”
Narciso Ibanez Serrador directed a grand total of two feature films, both horror. The first is this one, and the second came six years later; a very different, equally virtuoso film entitled Who Can Kill a Child? about a resort island taken over by murderous children. While he directed a ton of horror TV in Spain, it’s a shame he never made any other films, because between these two, he’s already one of the great Euro-horror directors of all time. Check out The House That Screamed in a recently released Blu-ray from Scream Factory, a worthy addition to the Gothic horror canon.