Film Reviews

The House That Screamed (1969) – Blu-ray Review

When you think of the European Horror film industry, the chances are that you’ll consider things such as the Hammer Horror series, and the Italian supernatural horror and Giallo movies of directors like Dario Argento, or Mario Bava.

Spanish horror tends to be overlooked, despite it having produced some hugely influential pieces of cinema, such as [REC] in the early 2000s. One name that is less well known in Europe, but who helped to define the horror genre in the 1960s and 70s is Narciso Ibáñez Serrador.

Serrador would have a prolific career in television, producing an anthology horror series that has been brought back in recent years, as well as creating the gameshow Un, dos, tres… which ran on Spanish TV from 1972 to 2004 (the UK stole the format in the 80s and turned it into the show 3-2-1). But along with this, Serrador would also write and direct a pair of hugely popular horror films. And now Arrow Video are bringing Serrafor’s first film, The House That Screamed, to Blu-ray.

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The House That Screamed is a Gothic horror tale set in a girls’ finishing school in the south of France during the late 19th century. The school is a home for ‘wayward’ girls; teens who have ‘brought shame’ upon their families by being disobedient, by having sex outside of marriage, or who are the children of ‘undesirable’ people. It’s here that Teresa (Cristina Galbó) finds herself being sent when her mother, a sex worker in Avignon, can no longer take care of her. Teresa is shown around the school by the headmistress, Señora Fourneau (Lilli Palmer), and all seems well at first.

However, Teresa soon learns that the beautiful building and well mannered young women are but a veneer hiding a darker underbelly. Fourneau rules the school with an iron fist, looking down upon her charges as dirty, wasteful, and irredeemable girls that she needs to keep from the outside world. With the help of Irene (Mary Maude), the head girl, and her small group of enforcers, Fourneau delivers swift punishment to anyone who disobeys her, including brutal whippings. Irene and her girls run the school under Fourneau, using their power to control the girls, deciding who gets in trouble, and who gets rewarded with sexual encounters with the local delivery man. Teresa is left to try and navigate all of the intricate webs of lies, power-plays, and deceptions within the school. But when a number of girls start to go missing it seems like something even more sinister might be happening.

For much of its run time The House That Screamed is not a horror film, and falls more into the realms of drama and mystery than anything else. Much of the film deals with the inner workings of the school, and the various characters that inhabit it. Even before we’ve been introduced to our principal lead, Teresa, we get a taste of what the school is like when Fourneau has to deal with a rebellious student in one of her classes. From here things only become more complex as the film introduces more layers, more characters, and more plots.

Despite this, it’s all pretty easy to follow. Each of the various characters have pretty easy to understand goals and desires. Fourneau wants to control the young women that she sees as evil and corrupted. She wants to remove them from a decent society because she sees them as lesser, and there are a number of times throughout the film where she makes it clear that despite running a school that’s supposed to make them better girls she really doesn’t see that as a possibility. A large part of her hate seems to come from the fact that she’s worried that her teenage son, Luis (John Moulder-Brown), will fall in with them, that he will be led astray by them and corrupted. There’s also an element of incestuousness to their relationship that makes her overbearing protectiveness take on a twisted and uncomfortable tone.

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With the film being so focused on the inner workings of this prison-like school, and with the adult lead having a creepy, almost romantic relationship with her son, you’d think that The House That Screamed would be a lot more sexual, tantalising, or risque. But it’s not. Serrador, in part to appease the stringent censors that would not allow it, keeps the film quite chaste, only hinting at sexual moments via editing and the use of characters in other scenes to imply things.

Even the scene where the girls take their weekly shower, with Luis peeping on them from the vents, is kept quite de-sexualised, with the girls wearing their nightgowns whilst washing. This helps to further portray Fourneau’s hate of the girls and only seeing them as sexual beings, but also stops the scene from becoming used for titillation’s sake. The one girl who does remove her clothing does so as an act of defiance against Fourneau, and keeps her back to the audience; a back covered in the scars left there by Fourneau’s beatings. Instead of being a sexual moment it becomes an empowering one, that shows the cruelty of the headmistress, and the brave defiance the girls are capable of.

But the film doesn’t just stick in the realms of personal dramas and the inner workings of this school. There is a killer about. The moments of murder that happen on screen are kept mostly to a minimum, and Serrador plays with the audience in these moments. A scene where a girl thinks she’s sneaking out of the dormitory to meet her lover is accompanied by sweet music until the killer grabs her from behind and kills her, at which point the music drops completely, leaving you with silence. The viewer is left alone with the awful visual, having been lied to as to what was coming, or perhaps even having been inside the head of the young victim, hearing the music because that’s what she was hoping for; music that ends abruptly when her life is taken and her thoughts cease. Serrador uses trickery like this several times throughout the film, and it becomes very apparent that he’s using editing, camera angles, and music to tell a bigger story than is on display, expanding the moments we’re seeing into something else.

The film falls into horror in its final moments when the identity of the killer, and their motivations, are revealed to the audience. I won’t reveal who it is or why so as to keep the film unspoiled for you (good for you if you’ve avoided spoilers for 54 years), but it’s a shocking moment, one that leaves the film feeling a lot more twisted, gruesome, and horrific than the preceding ninety plus minutes would have you expect. The ending also leaves you wanting to go back and watch the film again, if only to see if there were hints that could have been missed along the way that would have revealed who the killer was. As well as to re-examine certain scenes from a new perspective now that we know the motivations of the killer.

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Despite the age of the film, as well as the rather small following it’s had over the decades, the new release does manage to get quite a few extras together. There’s a new audio commentary by film critic and podcaster Anna Bogutskaya, who goes into the creation of the movie, as well as the broader historical context behind both the making of the movie and Spanish horror cinema of the time. There are also several interviews, including an interview with John Moulder-Brown, a segment of a talk with Mary Maude where she spoke about working on the film, and a new interview with the author of the book the film was based upon. It’s worth noting that despite the images for this review being in black and white, the film and all of its extras are presented in colour.

The House That Screamed is a wonderfully different piece of European horror, one that you seems to draw from several other sources and inspirations, yet manages to be unique and interesting in its execution. It’s easy to see how Serrador would go on to be seen as a hugely influential figure (even dubbed the Hitchcock of Spain), and why the movie is held in such high regards. The new release is the perfect addition to the collection of long time fans, as well as the perfect gateway for new ones.

The House That Screamed is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

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