Monday, December 16, 2013

Final Girl Film Club - The House That Screamed (1969)

Cody moves into La Residencia for the Final Girl Film Club.

Given the fact that this film from writer/director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador alternately goes by the titles La Residencia, The House That Screamed, and The Finishing School (the title that was on the print I watched, but I prefer the Screamed one), it's obvious going in that its action will likely play out within one foreboding location.

The setting is 19th century France, and the titular location is a French finishing/boarding school for girls between the ages of 15 and 21, run by a middle aged woman called Senora Fourneau. Although the school is primarily for "difficult" girls - thieves and runaways "or worse", who have been sent to Fourneau for her to correct and mold into stable citizens and housewives - the only fault of our lead character Teresa, an 18-year-old girl who we arrive at the school with at the beginning as her horse-drawn carriage is allowed entrance through the property's padlocked gate, is that she's the illegitimate child of a prostitute.

Teresa seems to believe that this will be a nice place to stay and study at for a while, it's presented to her as a pleasant experience, but she soon discovers that the place is a bit of a hell hole. Fourneau runs the place "with a firm hand" and the rules are strict. Worse than Fourneau is her assistant, a young, cruel girl named Irene, who appears to take pleasure in tormenting the new arrival.

When a student steps out of line, she's locked up in the seclusion room for a while. If the situation requires further punishment, the student is stripped and whipped - a beating happily delivered by Irene. Of course, the image of this whipping was heavily featured in the film's marketing materials to bring in the exploitation fans.

Teresa does her best not to make waves, to fit in and settle in to the school's routines. She even learns that the girls have a way to get sexual gratification from a male while locked up in the school - every three weeks a man from town delivers wood, in more ways than one. He's not especially good looking, but he's their only option, so the girls draw lots to decide which will get to spend some time with him.

But Henry from town isn't the only male around. Fourneau's teenage son Luis also lives in the school, but he's forbidden from interacting with the girls by his overprotective, creepily attached mother. None of the girls in this school are good, she warns him. "These girls are poison." He just needs to wait and find a girl who is just like his mother was when she was young, someone who will love him, care for him, protect him... Yet his mother's warnings don't stop Luis from watching and following the girls, or sneaking around to meet one occasionally. When the girls shower together (in their night gowns) on Tuesdays, Luis spies on them.

Although Fourneau tries to keep the school as secure as a prison, some girls have recently escaped. Once they're off the grounds, the runaways are never seen or heard from again... and around the 40 minute mark of the film, we get an idea of why these girls have disappeared so completely. When fifteen-year-old Isabelle attempts to run off with Luis, she's encountered at their designated meeting point not by her teenage beloved, but by a shadow-enshrouded figure who proceeds to stab the girl to death.

Someone may be knocking off the students one-by-one, but they take so much time between kills that it plays into the film on only a couple quick occasions. Serrador is much more interested in studying his characters than slashing them up. The running time is largely taken up by the lives of the students, the rule breaking, we see how Teresa gets along, how she has to deal with mean girl interactions. We also see how Fourneau tries to keep the school running smoothly... and her disturbing chats with her son...

Despite the film not being as much of a proto-slasher as I would've preferred, I still found it to be intriguing throughout. The characters and situations still kept me interested, even though it felt like the murder mystery aspect wasn't really being developed. Strangely, despite the focus on character, there is a big leap made in the storytelling, two of the characters are said to have made a close connection and yet this isn't really shown in the film, the information is just delivered through exposition after the story jumps forward some time.

Overall, the film definitely takes some cues from Psycho. There's even an unexpected shift in character perspective, although it comes much, much later in this one than it did in Alfred Hitchcock's movie.

The cast is quite good, with veteran actress Lilli Palmer (Chamber of Horrors, The Boys from Brazil) as Fourneau, John Moulder-Brown as Luis, Cristina Galbó of What Have You Done to Solange?, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and a future of flamenco dancing as Teresa, and Mary Maude (Crucible of Terror, Scorpio, Terror '78) as Irene.

Like Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's other horror (and Film Club) entry, 1976's Who Can Kill a Child?, The House That Screamed moves along at its own slow pace, but unlike Child, which I found to be maddening, I really enjoyed this one.

Special mention has to be given to Waldo de los Rios for providing the film with its awesome spookhouse score.

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