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Monday, January 2, 2017

Retro Review: THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969)


THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED
(Spain - 1969; US release 1971)

Written and directed by Narciso Ibanez Serrador. Cast: Lilli Palmer, Cristina Galbo, John Moulder Brown, Mary Maude, Candida Losada, Tomas Blanco, Maribel Martin, Pauline Challenor, Teresa Hurtdao, Conchita Paredes, Victor Israel. (PG, 94 mins)

It's not nearly the exploitative grinder that American International's poster art promised when it opened in the US in 1971, but 1969's THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED is a slow-burning and quietly effective Spanish chiller that's certain to find a new audience now that it's been rescued from obscurity by Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray release. Never released on VHS and all but impossible to see in a decent-looking presentation for many years, THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED looks terrific on Blu-ray with its "old dark house" sets and late 19th century period detail. The entire film takes place at a French boarding school for wayward girls run by Mme. Fourneau (Lilli Palmer), a strict spinster-type who lords over her charges and doesn't hesitate to dole out stern punishment, such as headstrong, rebellious Catherine (Pauline Challenor) being thrown into the "seclusion room," where Fourneau has her whipped by sadistic teacher's pet Irene (Mary Maude). The girls welcome the arrival of new resident Teresa (Cristina Galbo), dropped off by a friend of her family, which consists of her absent mother who may or may not be a prostitute. There's a gloomy cloud hanging over the proceedings, whether it's the unbending rule of Fourneau, who harbors a barely concealed desire for the girls--watch the way she leers at them while they shower or gently kisses the bleeding flagellation wounds in the middle of Catherine's back--or her sheltered and sexually curious son Luis (DEEP END's John Moulder Brown), who's prone to spying on the girls and seems to be developing a fixation on Teresa.






Writer/director Narciso Ibanez Serrador (the disturbing 1976 masterpiece WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?) spends nearly half the film methodically establishing an unsettling and perverse atmosphere (with some help from a moody score by Waldo de los Rios) before he even introduces a killer into the proceedings with the unexpected murder of Isabelle (THE BLOOD SPLATTERED BRIDE's Maribel Martin), a shy girl who angered Mme. Fourneau by having romantic feelings for Luis. It's only later that we discover several girls have vanished over the last few months, their disappearances unaccounted for and swept under the rug by Mme. Fourneau. The ultimate reveal of the killer isn't a big shock, but THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED surprises in other ways. The best example is the unexpected character arc of Irene, who spends much of the film behaving even more despicably than Mme. Fourneau, exacting mean girl revenge on Teresa after her overt lesbian advances are rejected (the agonizingly long scene where she terrorizes Teresa is almost too uncomfortable to watch), but having a change of heart when she realizes Fourneau has been negligent about the missing girls and has been using her as a puppet to bully the other girls and keep them under her thumb. Irene's transformation from bitchy villain to hero-by-default is tough to pull off in a believable fashion but Maude does, and her performance really is the film's secret weapon. Serrador also displays some sly bits of dark humor, as evidenced in one scene where quick-cut shots of girls frantically knitting is used to symbolize intense sexual frustration as they listen to one of the others having sex outside with a local stud who secretly visits the school once a week.


With its horny schoolgirls, lesbian undertones, a weirdo mama's boy, rampant sexual repression and a knife-wielding maniac, there's an undeniable sense of tawdry sleaze permeating THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED, but it's usually presented in as subtle and tactful a manner as possible. For lack of a better term, it could be called a "gothic giallo," with the look and feel of a Hammer horror period piece with a plot that prefigures the Italian thrillers that would be popularized by the likes of Dario Argento and Sergio Martino in the next year or two. It's one of the earliest "schoolgirls in peril" subgenre offerings, coming not long after Alfred Vohrer's krimi THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS and Antonio Margheriti's THE YOUNG, THE EVIL AND THE SAVAGE, and a few years before Massimo Dallamano's essential giallo/krimi hybrid WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (which featured Galbo), initially released in the US as THE SCHOOL THAT COULDN'T SCREAM, and its semi-sequels WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? and ENIGMA ROSSO, There's only a couple of onscreen murders, but they're handled in an unusual fashion, with one playing with de los Rios' score and having it slowly grind to a halt as the victim dies. Factoring out the supernatural element with which Argento ran wild, SUSPIRIA also owes a bit of a debt to THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED, especially with its girls trudging through a miserable ballet class and Palmer's Mme. Fourneau being cut from the same cloth as Joan Bennett's Mme. Blanc and Alida Valli's Miss Tanner in the Argento classic. Argento also incorporated the schoolgirl theme into his 1985 film PHENOMENA, aka CREEPERS, with Daria Nicolodi's psycho headmistress Miss Bruckner another variant on Mme. Fourneau. THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED goes pretty bonkers in its unforgettable closing minutes, and without going too deeply into spoiler territory, it'll become clear to fans of the legendary 1983 Spanish splatter classic PIECES where that film got one of its craziest ideas.






Based on the plot, it was probably easy to sell THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED as a trashy drive-in horror flick to American audiences, but like many Spanish films of that era and into the mid '70s, it takes some not-very-veiled swipes at the regime of Francisco Franco. There's no aggressive political statements being made, but certainly Mme. Fourneau's forcing the girls to shower in their nightgowns, refusing to allow them to be nude even while bathing--this is another thing against which Catherine rebels and Fourneau can't stop herself from staring with obvious desire at the young woman's breasts (Palmer plays this moment perfectly)--is a jab at the pervasive censorship of the arts under Franco. Such critiques were common in Spanish cinema of this period, most notably in the works of Luis Bunuel (1961's VIRIDIANA) and Carlos Saura (1975's CRIA CUERVOS), but also Victor Erice's 1973 classic THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE. THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED is ultimately a film firmly ensconced in the thriller/horror genre and doesn't take quite the line-in-the-sand stances that Bunuel, Saura, and Erice did, or that Serrador would do seven years later with the still-shocking WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?, but it's got a little more going on than the typical AIP B-movie exploitation import you'd see in 1971. Born in Uruguay in 1935 and in apparent retirement now, Serrador's family moved to Spain when he was 12, and his career dates back to the late 1950s, much of it spent doing gun-for-hire work for Spanish television, often under the pseudonym "Luis Penafiel." He's best known in Spain for creating several TV game shows, including the hugely popular UN, DOS, TRES...RESPONDA OTRA VEZ, which ran in prime time from 1966 to 2004. He compiled a handful of screenwriting credits over the years and didn't aspire to be a "horror guy" but oddly, his mere two outings as a feature film director have cemented his status as a major figure in Spanish cult horror cinema to those outside of Spain, while to Spanish audiences, his association with game shows and variety programs have basically made him that country's Merv Griffin. Shout's Blu-ray includes both the 94-minute American cut of THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED and an extended 102-minute version with standard-definition inserts of footage cut by AIP that included some additional gore and nudity but primarily consisted of dialogue that slowed the pace a bit. There's also interviews with Moulder Brown and Maude that make this as comprehensive a package as you can get for a horror gem that's been long forgotten except by a small cult of devoted fans.


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