What sets Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s LA RESIDENCIA, aka THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED, apart from most boarding school horror is its authentic nineteenth century setting, several interesting themes to explore, and an ambition for exploiting violence and odd sexual themes that seemed ahead of its time for 1969. The ambiance as well as the characters' costumes and mannerisms effectively transport the viewer to a different and melancholic world in an older era. The film’s body-count may be a little low, but things are exceptionally macabre and grim, with a certain character’s late night demise in a greenhouse being unexpectedly crowd pleasing and so beautifully and artistically filmed that Dario Argento would likely be impressed. Void of pomposity while having a lot of interesting character interaction and depth, and surprisingly little faults to identify, LA RESIDENCIA is a really well-made, classy, and high-quality movie. It did get the Elvira treatment, though, but we won’t go there.
Something unusual but commendable is the manner in which the film proceeds after the protagonist attempts to escape the school. Due to a particular event that occurs, the final twenty-two minutes roll on in a way that is a very bold and risky move by the filmmakers and is usually something that is generally avoided in storytelling. I’ve only ever seen it happen in one other movie, which I won’t name because I don’t want to give it away, but it definitely adds to the unique flavor of the film.
With the way Lilli Palmer’s character, Sra. Fourneau, introduces her French boarding school to newcomer, Teresa (Cristina Galbó of WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?), one would think it was a place for the elite and gifted, but it eventually comes off as a correctional facility of sorts, with the principal running the school with a firm hand in order to help wayward girls become the proper and disciplined housewives they are expected to be. It turns out the man accompanying Teresa to this school is a friend of her mother, who claims that Teresa’s mother would’ve liked to educate her herself but unfortunately cannot due to undisclosed reasons. This ambiguous presentation of Teresa from this man to the headmistress and the way he diligently pays for two whole school terms right out of his pocket is suspicious, giving a sense that Teresa is being dumped off at this place, as if she needs to be gotten rid of (It is implied several times, but never really proven, that Teresa’s mother is a prostitute).
One cannot help thinking that Teresa is in some sort of unfortunate or sad predicament, and as a result, we find ourselves attached to this character and concerned for her as well, and despite leading what may’ve been a hard life, she still manages to come off as a charming and very nice person. She is certainly a person least deserving of what she endures at the school and where she ends up.
Eventually, well into the movie, one of the students, Isabelle (Maribel Martin of THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE), is murdered after sneaking out afterhours to meet her boyfriend, the headmistress’s son, Luis (John Moulder-Brown), by an unknown assailant, finally establishing the fact that there is a killer on the loose. However, no one discovers the body and it is assumed that Isabelle likely ran away, and so it is only the viewers who know that there is a killer, while the students and staff are oblivious, making things a bit more suspenseful.
And so, it is not fear of being murdered that results in Teresa deciding to escape from the school, but it is an act of humiliation and cruelty brought on by a classmate with seniority and social power, Irene (Mary Maude), a student who frequently wears a suit and tie, effectively portraying her power (and she looks pretty good in it). For you see, the killer isn’t the only villain here. Irene is the teacher’s pet, a bully, and a very strong addition to the cast, whose stunning good looks and detestable personality clash together, resulting in an unusual feeling for anyone that may find her attractive. I wouldn’t want to be in any school with her. The gaze she gives Teresa when she first sees her gives off a bad feeling.
Through her dominant personality and favorability with the headmistress, Irene has authority and control over matters, and she has her clique of followers, too, who can sort of be seen as the aristocrats in the social order that has developed in the school. Inducing submission and the students’ eagerness to gain her favorability; Irene takes advantage of the sexually oppressed situation that the students are in, as she is the one who organizes and decides who gets sexual relief by meeting Henry in the barn, a man who delivers wood to the school every three weeks, further solidifying her control and high position.
Palmer as the head mistress is, in a way, another villain, who stops at nothing to maintain the students’ respect for her and to stave off defiance. She keeps her sixteen year old son, Luis, in the school with her, who is highly coddled and forbidden to meet with any of the girls. Certain moments in the film strongly suggest, though without ever deliberately indicating it, that she is sexually attracted to her son and one of the students as well, which can be seen as a certain hypocrisy that accompanies the headmistress who promotes a sexually barren atmosphere for the sake of morals and virtue. She also expects that the girls in her school shower together with their gowns still on, likely to prevent any impure thoughts towards one another.
When one of the girls, Kathryn (Pauline Challoner), refuses to do dictation in class one day, she is put into solitary confinement. When the newly arrived Teresa hears about Kathryn being locked up in a seclusion room, she asks “who is Kathryn?” to which one of the girls replies “a very nice girl”, and the movie immediately cuts to the physical punishment scene that’s used in the film’s movie poster. This ironic response about Kathryn implies that these girls are not as deviant and wayward as they are made out to be and may not be all that deserving of the harsh treatments that the school offers, because aside from Irene and her cronies, the students all come off as very nice girls. During the punishment/torture scene, the movie brilliantly cuts back and forth between Kathryn being held down and whipped in the seclusion room and the other girls saying their nightly prayers together in the bedroom they all share.
The ending to the film, which easily transforms the movie from thriller territory to full blown horror, is a little silly in comparison to the powerful and oppressive atmosphere the movie has exuberated so far, but it is still delightfully wicked. It inspired two other well-known cult films; again I won’t name them, in order to not give away the ending to LA RESIDENCIA because it would otherwise be real obvious.
A great movie and highly recommended by yours truly…. See it, if you haven’t.