Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Final Girl Film Club :: Spoilers Ahoy! :: The Who, What, Where, When and Why of Narciso Serrador's The House the Screamed (1969)

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"If the girls want to escape, they will. 
This is a boarding house, not a prison."

"Then I will make it a prison." 
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Our film begins in what appears to be turn of the 19th Century France, with the arrival of young Theresa (Euro-Sleaze fave Galbo) at Madame Fourneau's palatial boarding school for girls. (Or, according to the horrible English dub that I watched, Madame Porno's palatial boarding school for girls.) As the new ward is given the grand tour by the Headmistress (Palmer), it appears the establishment is a prim and proper finishing school, designed to train and prepare the students in the fine art of womanhood. But if The House that Screamed teaches us anything, it's that things are never, ever what they appear to be.

See, turns out Fourneau's school is the last resort for the wayward and the unwanted, and she runs it like a Filipino prison camp, as those who show any signs of insolence are placed in solitary confinement, where that insolence is then summarily beaten out of them with a leather strap. Aided and abetted by a group of bullying (and, of course, lesbian) trustees, led by the predatory Irene (Maude), they soon set their lascivious sights on poor Theresa; whom, it turns out, is the illegitimate daughter of a high-profile prostitute and some muckety-muck that is footing the bill to hide her away.

Even before her arrival, with all of those coming-of-age girls cooped up inside these isolated academy walls, the sexual tension and roiling frustrations were already at critical mass -- even the sewing seminar carries an erotic charge. I'm serious. To help defuse this pent-up powder-keg, Irene trades favors on the side for access to the local delivery men, leading to a romp in the hay in the adjoining stable for the lucky girl of the day. 

The only other men on the grounds are a toady groundskeeper and Fourneau's adolescent son, Luis (Moulder-Brown). Though kept on a short, incestuous leash by his mother, who forbids him to associate with these unworthy girls, wanting him to wait for someone more refined, like herself, Luis still manages to sneak around the mansion's many hidey-holes and unused passages, especially around the showers, to play the Peeping Tom (which isn't as much of a show as you'd think since the uptight Fourneau won't even let her charges bathe without their smocks on.) The little pervert also arranges secret assignations with several of the girls -- girls who seem to go missing after he promises to help break them out so they can runaway together, he typed ominously...

About a half-dozen girls have disappeared over the last few months under these same circumstances, prompting the increasingly agitated Forneau to beef up security to prevent any more of those ungrateful brats from running off. And here, our first real clue that something far more sinister is going on presents itself when Luis' latest doe-eyed conquest sneaks off to meet him in the greenhouse, where she is brutally knifed to death by some unseen assailant, as our movie drastically shifts exploitation gears from a delirium of forced sexual repression to maniacal mayhem and mass murder.

Let's be clear up front: The House that Screamed (a/k/a La Residencia) is one helluva disturbing movie. And awesome. Disturbingly awesome. Another one of those Euro-Sleaze melting pots -- Spanish money and crew, shot in France, English and German actors -- the film just gets under your skin and itches like crazy. What it reminds me of most is a combination of "Uncle Silas", author J.S. LeFanu's dark Victorian novel of mounting horror, and the visual, dreamlike ambiguity of Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock punctuated by explosions of graphic violence similar to Mario Bava in his Twitch of the Death Nerve phase. 

To accomplish this, director Serrador, with a story assist from Juan Tébar, really over-stuffs the blender with all kinds of ingredients: a Gothic pot-boiler, a Women in Prison flick and a seedy Slasher, with some heavy gialli-like overtones to give the resulting slush a really surreal kick. And Serrano plays the audience beautifully, capitalizing on an outstanding shooting location, beginning at the lowest speed, churning all of those elements together but they're still recognizable as they swirl around. But! As he ratchets things up, the plot (and the audience) is stirred, mixed, chopped, puree'd and finally liquefied into something truly unique as we progress onward from that first murder. For what really sets the film apart is how we keep switching perspectives, meaning just when we think we know what's going on and who the main protagonist is, Serrador goes and bumps them off!

Remember how I said nothing is what it appears to be in this movie? Yeah, well, here we have the likable Theresa, set up perfectly as a typical, though proto final girl, whom we expect to take us by the hand as the killer targets her as she unravels the unholy secrets of Fourneau's Academy. And as Fourneau throws an even more draconian net over her charges, and caught in Irene's ever tightening web of humiliation, Theresa wants nothing more but to escape and turns to Luis for help. Here, following form, we expect her to be attacked while trying that escape, resulting in a struggle, revealing the killer, etc. etc. etc. Well, she does attempt an escape but only makes it as far the main hall before her throat is cut from ear to ear! Whoa. So much for that idea, right? Right.

Well, since our heroine is dead and we still don't know whodunit the story shifts its focus to Irene, who is none to happy about her latest pigeon flying the coop. She knew of Theresa's escape plan and was waiting in ambush outside the main entrance. But when her target never appeared, all Irene finds is a splash of blood near the door ... Realizing all of those missing girls are probably dead and buried somewhere around the campus grounds, Irene confronts Fourneau with the facts, who still doggedly insists the girls just ran off despite all evidence to the contrary. Irene, meanwhile, raises such a stink she loses all of her head trustee privileges. 

And when she's threatened with a trip to solitary over her continued defiance, Irene reminds Herr Fourneau that she has enough dirt on her and how she runs things to ruin the school forever. The headmistress backs off, things disintegrate even further, and Irene decides she'd better get while the getting is still breathing. So, when night falls, as Irene sneaks her way toward the main entrance, a strange voice draws the girl away from a sure escape and deeper into the darker recesses of the mansion, where the killer awaits.

And as we finally barrel toward the fantastically morbid conclusion of The House that Screamed, if you think Serrano is done pulling our chains at this point, well, you'd be wrong. Dead wrong. Just ask Irene. No, wait. You can't. She's dead, too, leaving Madame Fourneau to find and face the inevitable truth -- the truth that puts the scream in The House that Screamed. For in the end, it's not so much as whodunit that's important but whyhedunit. He, you ask? Yeah, if the killer wasn't obvious enough the final twist of why is an ample reward for those who sniffed Luis out early, whose perversely innocent and ingrained motives to find someone just (-- stress on the JUST) like dear old mom have finally reached fruition -- he just had to find her, one piece at a time.*bleaurgh*

According to several sources if you'd like to see The House that Screamed, which I hope this review will encourage you to do, go after the Elvira's Movie Macabre double disc of this and Maneater of Hydra. I watched it via an Amazon rental through my trusty Roku box, my inaugural effort on such things, and, aside from that aforementioned hatchet-job of a audio track, was very happy with the quality of the widescreen print. Hell, I hadn't even heard of the damned thing until stumbling upon a poster a little over a week ago, and now I consider The House that Screamed one of my all time favorite Euro-Shockers. 

Other Points of Interest:

A long time reader but this is my first time participating in the Final Girl Film Club, and, frankly, I cheated, dusting off this old review and republishing it for this tag-team retrospective. Please follow the linkage, Boils and Ghouls, for many more worthwhile takes on this truly fascinating film, please and thank you.

The House that Screamed (1969/1971) Anabel Films :: American International / P: Arturo González / D: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador / W: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, Juan Tébar / C: Manuel Berenguer / M: Waldo de los Ríos / S: Lilli Palmer, Cristina Galbó, John Moulder-Brown, Maribel Martín, Mary Maude

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