Overlooked & Underseen: The House that Screamed (1969)
This week, I’m talking about a movie I didn’t even know existed a month ago. My husband has been watching those Double Dose features that Amazon Prime streaming has been offering. About 15 minutes into one, he told me to come take a look. It was right up my alley, for sure. We finished watching it and liked it so much, we ordered a copy of it on Blu-ray. The movie was Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s The House that Screamed, also known as La Residencia.
Sometime in the late 1800s, Señora Fourneau (Lilli Palmer) is the headmistress of a girls school in France. It’s not a typical private school, this is a school for troubled girls. In this time period, I think troubled just meant “cannot be controlled.” The señora runs a tight ship and if the girls get unruly, well, someone’s going to get whipped. One of the señora’s favorites is Irene (Mary Maude). Irene is the one who actually doles out the whippings, has keys to the buildings, and pretty much rules the school. The señora has a teenage son named Luis (the remarkably gorgeous John Moulder-Brown). He has been forbidden from interacting with any of the girls because they are trash and not worthy of him. The señora tells Luis that she is the only woman who is worthy of his love. Yeah, there’s something weird going on there.
Teresa (Cristina Galbó) is a new student at the school and Irene wastes no time in involving her in the goings on after hours, including Irene getting to decide which of the girls gets to go down to the barn and spend a sweaty few minutes with the man who brings the firewood. These girls are so isolated and hot for men, they’re willing to sleep with any guy that comes their way. Not everything is going well at the school. A few girls have gone missing. The disappearances are explained by saying they just ran away. Although it’s been forbidden, Teresa and Luis start seeing each other on the sly. Eventually, though, Teresa decides she wants to get the fuck out of that place and plans her escape. Someone else has other plans, of course.
The House that Screamed is a gothic slowburner, if you will. Some would say glacier-paced but I think it’s paced just right. If you recognize the director’s name, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, it’s probably because you’ve seen another of his film called Who Can Kill a Child? On one of the extras on the Shout! Factory disc, Moulder-Brown calls Ibáñez Serrador “the Hitchcock of Spain.” There are some similar themes between this and Psycho, to be sure. I think Dario Argento must’ve seen this film at some point before he made Suspiria, as there are more than a couple parallels between the two. There is some great camera work going on in The House that Screamed including an extended tracking shot as Teresa is being shown around the school. One scene that especially stood out for me was the scene where the girls are in the sewing room waiting to see which of them will get picked by Irene to go see the woodman in the barn. The rising sexual tension is palpable and reaches a fever pitch as we cut from one student to another, anxious to see which on of them is finally picked. Ibáñez Serrador has got something special going on here. He’s trying something different and, for me, it works.
Lilli Palmer is terrific as the headmistress of the school. She’s cold to the girls she oversees because she thinks they’re beyond redemption but, boy, does she love her son. I’ve discussed John Moulder-Brown once before in this column as he was the star of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970). He does a fine job here as Luis. Mary Maude’s Irene was the stand out of the girls. When she’s on screen, you can’t help but watch her.
As I mentioned in the opening, The House that Screamed is streaming on Amazon Prime as part of the Double Doses series. This one is called Double Doses of Horror: Dorm Girls & Lady Vampires! The second film on the bill is called Count Dracula and his Vampire Bride but it’s really The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). After watching the Shout! Factory Blu-ray, my husband is convinced that Amazon is streaming the Blu-ray copy because it’s pretty pristine and letterboxed. It’s also available for rent on Amazon Prime on its own but I can’t attest to the condition of that copy. Either way, add this to your watchlist and get it seen.