Tuesday, December 4, 2012

La residencia (1969)

... aka: Boarding School, The
... aka: Finishing School, The
... aka: House of Evil
... aka: House That Screamed, The

Directed by:
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador

Madame Fourneau (Lilli Palmer) runs her all-girls boarding house with an iron fist. Every girl, aged 15 to 21, who is entrusted in her care is to be well-mannered, ladylike and, most importantly of all, obedient. She expects all her girls to be impossibly well-rounded. Aside from book studies, each student must learn how to sculpt and paint, play a musical instrument, keep in shape with one hour of mandatory ballet daily and learn how to garden and cook in case she becomes a housewife one day. At Fourneau's boarding school it's all about healthy minds and healthy bodies. Just don't show too much individuality or spunk. Or ask too many questions about all the strange things that go on there. Fourneau likes the keep everyone in check. For those who don't play by her rules, punishment is in order. And when one starts to realize that Madame Fourneau probably missed her higher calling being a prison warden, you can probably guess what kinds of questionable tactics she uses for punishment.

One such trouble-maker is Catherine (Pauline Challenor), who is put in solitary confinement for sassing and then stripped and whipped for refusing the apologize. Madame doesn't really even have to get her hands dirty. Her favorite student Irene (Mary Maude), who's her favorite because she does whatever her superior wants, seems to derive a great deal of pleasure from being the one to get to dish out the abuse to her fellow students. On the second floor of the boarding house is Fourneau's teenage son Luis (John Moulder-Brown), who isn't allowed to fraternize with the girls or anyone else for that matter. Just coming of age and showing an interest in girls, Fourneau "forbids" him from having lustful thoughts, says not to mess around with any of the girls because they're "poison" (most living there are 'wayward' types needing discipline) and tells him "You need a woman like me." Coincidentally, this is the fourth movie I've watched in two weeks concerning someone with smothering mommy issues. Let's just hope poor Luis doesn't go down the same path as Leo Kroll or Ezra Cobb.

Cristina Galbó (from LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE and a few other notable Euro-horrors) plays the virtuous daughter of a prostitute sent there with no knowledge that three girls have already mysteriously disappeared from the school never to be seen or heard from again. One of the youngest students, Isabel (Maribel Martín), who's been secretly meeting with Luis, receives keys and a note from her would-be suitor to meet him in the greenhouse late one night. She doesn't come back. More girls follow suit, especially those who try to leave or run away.

This entire thing is laid out almost exactly like a overheated women-in-prison drama with representations of all the usual characters you'll find in one of those films, from the evil matron to the lesbian queen bee who gets all the special privileges to the nubile (and in this case, virginal) innocent thrown in with the wolves. And it's laid out this way very consciously and deliberately. La Residencia is really about the dangers of pent-up sexuality. The all girl's school - as run by Fourneau - is painted as a suffocating hotbed of mannered sexual repression. A bunch of lonely and 'of age' schoolgirls (who draw lots to see who gets to sneak out and have sex with the guy who delivers wood once every 3 months) trapped in an oppressive, stuffy, claustrophobic environment headed over by a repressed spinster who, in turn, represses her son and keeps him locked away upstairs like a dirty little secret. It's no wonder someone's gone mad in that kind of environment! At one point a character tells Fourneau she runs the place too much like a prison (aside from the fact she makes the girls wear nightgowns when they shower!) and there are numerous shots of the girls shot from behind things like bedposts to allude to prison bars.

Going into this film knowing it involves a psycho targeting young ladies may raise certain expectations, but those are surely going to be dashed. This is actually quite mild and relatively non-exploitative given the premise. There's no nudity and very little violence or blood. The few murder scenes (which some believe influenced the giallo and slasher film movements) are stylishly shot and edited, with good use made of overlapping frames and slow motion. A dowdy, dark, earthy color scheme helps to enhance the atmosphere and - variable English dubbing aside - most of the performances are very good. One-time Hollywood star Palmer is perfect as the uptight and abusive principal. but the real surprise here is Maude, a talented but little-known British actress who manages to steal every scene she's in. Victor Israel, the go-to-guy for creepy bit parts and red herrings in Euro-horrors, is the school's handyman. Francisco Braña is listed in the opening credits but I don't recall ever seeing him.

Originally released in the U.S. as The House That Screamed, which was slightly trimmed to reduce the whipping scenes and amount of implied lesbianism. This is the same cut used by Shout! Factory for their 2007 DVD release (which is hosted by Elvira). The full, uncut version (released in Australia and what I viewed) runs 102 minutes. Director Ibáñez Serrador also made the memorable WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1975).


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