Originally released in Spanish as La Residencia (translated as “The Residence”), 1969’s The House that Screamed marks the debut of Spanish director Narciso Ibanez, who like Jesus Franco would serve as inspiration for horror films around the world with similar themes and motifs. Although possibly considered too slow and too tame for today’s audiences, The House that Screamed is worth watching for horror fans interested in the roots of the genres that remain prevalent today, in particular the Gothic girl-house and slasher genres.
The story takes place in France during the early 19th century. The setting is a boarding house for wayward girls. Run by Mrs. Founeau (Lilli Palmer), the school is not what it seems. To visitors who bring their children here, it appears that the house is well run, if not a little strict. However, such parents are looking for discipline, as all the girls in this school have experienced difficulties in the outside world and are considered “bad” and ineligible for marriage into the higher circles of society.
Into this school arrives Teresa (Christina Galbo), who has secrets of her own. As the story unfolds, Teresa discovers that the school is not what it appears to be. It turns out that Mrs. Founeau has a sadistic street, which she indulges in every chance she gets, particularly with students who defy her. In one gut-wrenching sequence, Founeau punished poor Catalina (Pauline Challoner). Although there is violence, director Serrador also injects an undercurrent of sexuality that is potent and disturbing.
Indeed, secret and inhibited sexuality are two themes this movie explores, as the plot shows us time and again that the school takes repressed sexuality as uses it as a tool for dominance and control. One particular sequence has some girls tormented Teresa about her mother, who they discover works at a brothel. The girls then have poor Teresa dance like a brothel girl before they are called back to their studies. But girls are not the only tools, as it is soon discovered that Founeau has a teenage son who serves as a pawn for some of the girls at the school. The boy has a strange relationship with his mother and happens to be a peeper.
The principal conflict at the school, however, is a serial murderer who is systematically killing off the young women. Of course, Founeau ignores these murders, instead claiming that the girls have managed to run away. There are only a few such murders on screen, but Founeau slows down the camera dramatically during these sequences, focusing on the “penetration” aspects of the kills as the murderer uses a blade. The Freudian implications will have psychology students reeling. The potboiler element of the film may have most yawning, and quite a few watching the movie will know who the killer is, but the movie’s reveal will have everyone nodding.
Written by Serrador with an assist from Juan Tebar, The House that Screamed creates a Gothic atmosphere that screams horror from its very opening sequence. Although the film is too talky for its own good, the killing sequences alone serve as a blueprint of what would become the slasher genre. Also of import is the elegant style in sets, sequences, and the acting, all of which surely impressed directors such as Dario Argento, who would explore his own Gothic school in Suspiria. There are quite a few “school” films out there (think of flicks such as The Woods), and these all owe some credit to The House that Screamed. For this reason alone, the movie is worth a look.