For the first twenty minutes or so, I fully expected Pedro Luis Ramírez's 1975 sinister-finishing-school thriller School of Death (El Colegio de la Muerte) to play out like a poor man's La Residencia (previously reviewed and drooled over on MMMMMovies here). SoD has a lot of the same elements that made that earlier flick so entertaining: a cold-as-ice headmistress with a creepily lesbonic right-hand girl, several instances of light bondage, and a shadow-draped old manor house serving as the dormitory where the young, orphaned charges must band together to survive their sadistic educations. Hell, the school even has a "Punishment Room" where naughty girls are sent to be whipped for the most minor infractions. Which is fine by me, of course--I don't mind if my 70s flicks are derivative, so long as they come from good sources.
But then School of Death started to separate itself from my idea of its derivation in some surprising and mostly entertaining ways. While Ramírez doesn't give have Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's eye for gorgeous violence and penchant for Freudian psychology, he makes up for it with mad science, some mild perversity, and a couple of closing-act twists that are as fun as they are silly. It's not going to supplant La Residencia on anyone's list of Best Girls' School Thrillers, but it does have something to offer for those in the mood to explore.
I love a hot opening (iykwim), and whatever else it does, School of Death certainly gives the viewer that: a lace-bodiced, heaving-bosomed girl strapped to a laboratory table, being menaced by a faceless villain with a scalpel and a big syringe ready for action. (IYKWIM.) After paralyzing the girl with the needle, the baddie makes a small incision in her temple, which makes the heaving stop and her eyes go glassy. We won't know what exactly is going on here for a while yet, but suffice to say the director had my attention.
Shortly thereafter we find ourselves at St. Elizabeth's School for Girls, where unfortunate orphans and the bastard spawn of aristocrats and whores are being groomed for exciting careers in the Victorian household service industry. Headmistress Miss Collins rules her sewing class with an iron fist in an iron glove: when a street-side organ grinder sets the toes of plain-but-sweet Sylvia (Victoria Vera) a-tappin', Collins quickly puts an end to that noise with a vicious ruler-to-palm smack. Further insubordination from Sylvia's sexy BFF Leonore (Sandra Mozarowsky) lead to the latter's incarceration in the aforementioned Punishment Room, where Collins's assistant ties Leonore to the bedpost and gives her a taste of the strap! While the bondage is nice, all we get in the way of flesh is a marked naked back and some bared shoulders from Leonore. Which is good, but not all you might hope for. And by "you," I mean "me."
While Leonore licks her wounds overnight, Sylvia learns she is to be transferred the next morning to her new job as housewench for a faraway aristocrat, which means she won't get to say goodbye to her friend or exchange addresses. Arriving at her place of employment well after dark, she's shown to her bedroom and told she will start her duties the next day. It's all a ruse, though, as midway through the night she's snatched from her room and strapped to a now-familiar laboratory table, where Dr. Kruger, a rasp-voiced medico with a puss like Dick Tracy's Pruneface, does his best to set the terrified girl at ease. "Quiet, my little Sylvia," he hisses, "You are in the hands of SCIENCE!" Oh, well all right, then. Of course she gets the same treatment as our pre-credits victimette, is returned to her bed and soon pronounced dead by handsome but unwitting Dr. Brown, the village GP.
Next we follow Dr. Brown to his fencing club, where he puts on a good show against local newspaperman Alan. After the inkstained wretch goes down in defeat and grudgingly congratulates his foe in a way that lets you know he just doesn't mean it, portly Lord Ferguson approaches Alan nervously. "They say you know an address that makes it possible to enter the doorways of Paradise itself," the sweaty peer whispers. "Do I explain myself well?" Apparently he does, because Alan gives him the address in question, and with it the key to what's going on down in Dr. Kruger's basement.
Bob, have an arrangement with Miss Collins at St. Elizabeth's whereby girls are sent to Kruger's pad, lobotomized, declared dead thanks to a super-sedative of Kruger's concoction, and then pimped out as Living Sex Dolls to sweaty fat fucks like Ferguson. (One of the film's unique joys is hearing Collins, Kruger, and their minions talk in hushed, terror-stricken tones about Bob--"What will happen when Bob finds out? What about Bob?" It's just such an un-criminal-mastermindish name, it gave me the giggles.) It's not a perfect system--not as good as Olaf's in The Sinful Dwarf, perhaps--but it seems to have worked out well for them.
Things go awry, however, when Lord Ferguson brings the zombie-like Sylvia to his estate for a ride on the Party Barge. Showing off his wealth, the aristocrat plays his newfangled phonograph for the unimpressed sex worker--but as luck would have it, the song is the same as the one the organ grinder played at the beginning of the movie! Shocked into sepia-toned flashbacks by the coincidence, Sylvia comes to long enough to stab Lord Ferguson and flee the scene, returning like a homing pigeon to Kruger's lab before losing her memory again. Of course once they turn on their masters they can't be retrained, so the hapless lass is put down like a rabid gerbil by her keepers.
One girl short of a full stable, the baddies put in an order to St. Elizabeth's for a replacement piece, and of course Leonore is next on the menu. As she uncovers clues about her friend's death and begins to get involved in a romantic relationship with Dr. Brown, Leonore is menaced by Dr. Kruger midnights in her room, though the raisin-headed scientist also seems to be harboring a crush on her too, which keeps her out from under the knife for a while. At the same time, a pointy-chinned, skeleton-thin Inspector has been on Kruger's trail since his escape from prison (the mad doc had been perfecting his memory-erasing surgery years earlier when a lab accident during his arrest gave him his scarred visage). As their scheme begins to unravel around them, Kruger and Miss Collins receive a visit from the horror-inspiring Bob, and then things all go boom.
Despite some truly atrocious dubbing, iffy pacing, and an appalling a lack of nekkidity, I found quite a bit to like about School of Death. The "brain damage as a means of turning girls out" idea was suitably icky and one I can't remember having seen before. (But I do have this weird scar on my temple...) Dr. Kruger's disfigurment and utterly impractical realm of study reminded me a bit of some of Jess Franco's cool mad scientists, if in reverse with regards to facial deconstruction. And the "discipline" elements at the school were handled well, and greatly appreciated.
Ramírez doesn't strike me as a great director, but he does manage some nicely gothic compositions here, especially on the carriage rides to and from the fateful house, with some stark spotlights casting long shadows and a blue gel adding just the right touch of color. Unfortunately he's also guilty of some of the most atrocious day-for-night photography I've ever seen on film, so points off there. A couple of stalking scenes through the shadow-steeped mansion almost make up for it, though, and provide some needed tension. The overuse of extremely intrusive library music is a bit harder to overlook.
As often happens with Eurocult films of this era, things go a little off the rails in the finale, as the spotlight of suspicion is cast on everyone and the script throws in twists to make you think the obvious culprit is NOT the mysterious Bob (he is), but then twists again to pull another surprise reveal out of its ass. (Suffice to say a latex mask technology in the mid-1900s was apparently far more advanced than you would think.) Still, it's pretty entertaining if you go along for the ride; just be sure to buckle your seat belt and throw logic over the side.
Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll and The Devil's Possessed) and would go on to appear in the Nazisploitation staple Love Train for the SS, is lovely to look at as the much-menaced heroine, and the actor portraying the Inspector brings grace and intelligence to a small role.
School of Death isn't a spectacular movie--it drags a little once the big bad plot is revealed, and its ending is almost too stupid, even given what's come before--but it does have some things to recommend it and is a fairly entertaining obscurity if you're in the mood. I fall in the range of 1.85 to 2 thumbs. If you can't find a copy of La Residencia, this one will do.