By this point in my movie-watching career, there are certain known quantities when it comes to watching Mad Movies. For instance, my tastes being what they are, I pretty much know going in to a movie by Paul Naschy, Jose Mojica Marins, or Jean Rollin that I'm going to find something to make my heart beat a little faster; similarly, I'm fairly confident that most Eurocine productions are going to leave me crankily unsatisfied. These are patterns that emerge over time, and though there may be exceptions, their general truth gives me a comfortable place from which to set off when dealing with such fare.
And while I always find it rewarding when a Naschy flick comes through with the awesome monster-mash action or a Coffin Joe joint blasts my eyeballs with the shocking, artistic perversity I've come to expect, it's even a little more rewarding when a movie I knew nothing about comes out of nowhere and bowls me over with its beauty, technical excellence, and/or effective storytelling. It's happened a few times--Bell from Hell, Lady Frankenstein, and Vampyres, to name a few. Like discovering a new species of butterfly, viewing these unexpected masterpieces is what really puts a spring in the Vicar's step and keeps him digging through the trash piles in search of similar treasure.
My latest Eureka! moment: this period-piece reform-school mystery/proto-slasher from Uruguayan director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, 1969's La Residencia (aka The House that Screamed).
"residencia" of the title, a boarding school for girls in 19th Century France. Overseen by stern, no-nonsense matron Madame Forneau (an absolutely EXCELLENT Lilli Palmer), the boarding school specializes in the education of young girls who are "difficult" and come from "non-exemplary homes," teaching them sewing, cooking, gardening and dance in the hopes of helping them one day land a husband. Of course with the more rambunctious girls this sometimes involves breaking their spirits in "The Discipline Room," where Forneau hands out punishments to be administered by her Matron's Pet and She-Wolf-in-Training, Irene (young Linda Fiorentino lookalike Mary Maude).
After troublemaker Lacienne is sent to the DISCIPLINE ROOM for disrupting Forneau's dictation class, the headmistress is called away to a meeting with obviously well-heeled aristocrat Mr. Baldie (Tomás Blanco), who sadly has a full head of hair. Baldie is delivering a new student and our clear protagonist for enrollment, Theresa (the lovely Cristina Galbó of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie). The scene in which he negotiates the specifics of the girl's tuition with Forneau is really wonderful in its understated tension--Baldie says he is not a relative, but only "a great friend of the girl's mother," who has fallen ill and is unable to care for her. He pays Theresa's tuition up front but wants no reports on her progress and is not to be bothered with any difficulties--obviously he is in a hurry to drop the girl off and wash his hands of her, and it's clear to the audience (and the stern, disapproving Madame Forneau) that his relationship to Theresa is closer than he's prepared to say.
While Mr. Baldie and Forneau discuss her future, Theresa has a light dinner in the boarding house's huge, empty dining hall. As she nibbles at her soup and biscuits, Theresa is frightened by a cockroach scurrying across the table toward her. It's a small touch, but implies that despite the richly furnished surroundings, something dark and unclean infests this house, something that is slowly creeping into the light...
We soon learn that Theresa's illegitimacy and her shame about her mother's burlesque hall singer/call girl profession are only the first of a complex web of buried secrets and dark truths that converge in the Gothic boarding house's lush, shadowy rooms. Apparently three girls have run away from the school in recent months, never to reappear; since all the girls live in fear of Forneau's cruelty, no one thinks this odd.
Furthermore, Madame Forneau's 16-year-old son Luis (John Moulder-Brown) is the only young male on the grounds, an initially phantom-like presence who follows the girls through the garden and spies on them from the furnace vents. He's also secretly meeting one of the girls in the boiler room between classes--Isabelle, played by the gorgeous Maribel Martín of Bell from Hell and The Blood-Spattered Bride. When Forneau finds out, her fury is equal parts Ilsa and Oedipus--holding her young son's head in her hands, her lips a bit too close to his, she admonishes him, "These girls are not good enough for you...What you need is a woman like ME!"
Serrador continues to ratchet up the sickness when he gives us a taste of Forneau's idea of discipline--after giving Lacienne a stern lecture in the Discipline Room, the headmistress orders Irene and her Heathers-like goon squad to strip the girl, hold her down on a cot, and whip her with a cat o'nine tails! The line between "Gothic Old House Chiller" and "WiP-flick" is thus blurred and the viewer is thrown a bit off-balance, not knowing quite where the filmmaker will take us.
murder, mayhem, and a shock ending in store that sent me away with a huge, impressed smile on my lips.
There's so much to love about this movie, it's really an embarrassment of riches. First off, it's simply GORGEOUS to look at. The sprawling, Gothic boarding house is the stuff of any Eurohorror fan's wet dreams, absolutely choked with shadowy atmosphere and menace. The ornate antique furniture, the dusty mirror in the ballet room, the sweltering claustrophobia of the greenhouse--all just fantastic sets, and photographed sumptuously by Serrador and cinematographer Manuel Berenguer. If you're a fan of Old Dark House Architecture, this movie is definitely for you.
The plotting is fantastic too, using standard thriller/mystery tropes and mixing them up, so that as I said before you're really never quite sure where you stand. And even though there's only a smidgen of nudity, Serrador still manages to infuse the proceedings with a pervasive sense of psychosexual wrongness that will keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering where this director is going next. The slow-burn character build-up of the first 45 minutes never seems boring to me, and really pays off in spades at the end. Just wonderful stuff.
Victor Israel (the clumsy plan-buggering robber in Naschy's Crimson) has a small but memorable role.
But the real show-stealer here is Mary Maude, whose performance as the sadistic hall monitor Irene is absolutely arresting. Sadly she didn't do a lot of movie work after La Residencia, and her acting here (aided by Irene's surprising but totally awesome character arc) will make you wish she had.
"true artiste" status. (Struggling to remain spoiler-free, let me just say that La Residencia contains one of the most beautiful murder scenes I've ever witnessed in a movie.) He also directed the highly esteemed killer-kids movie Who Can Kill a Child? and a segment of the 2006 anthology 6 Films to Keep You Awake, both of which have rocketed up my Netflix queue as of NOW.
Intriguing, creepy, and visually mesmerizing, La Residencia is a movie I can wholeheartedly recommend to any Eurohorror fan, and I'm pleased to give it an enthusiastic 3+ thumbs. Do like your Momma tells you and see this one today!
Nota Bene: this has been released on DVD in a couple of versions under its Americanized title, The House That Screamed--one of which is, inexplicably, the Elvira Movie Macabre DVD line. It goes without saying that if you watch that version, be *sure* to turn off the hostess's "witty" interludes. The movie's too good to be undercut by lame jokes, I don't care how big your funbags are.