DECEMBER 17, 2011
I almost wish that Mill Creek would go back and "remaster" their original Chilling Classics set, replacing all of those terrible transfers with ones along the lines of those seen in most of the Pure Terror set. For example, The House That Screamed (Spanish: La Residencia) is given a full 2.35:1 transfer (not anamorphic), and is presented fairly close to uncut, with only about 30 seconds of missing footage - some versions are said to be missing 20 minutes! In the Chilling Classics days, they probably would have tossed that version on there, and there wasn't a single letterboxed transfer on the entire set, whereas now I've almost come to expect them.
Anyway, good flick! A bit slow at times (you'll feel its 99 minutes), but being that it's basically a slasher film from 1969, you can't really expect a Friday the 13th style pace. On the contrary, I was quite surprised to see a few on-screen murders, including a decent throat slashing - these sort of things were certainly not in vogue at this time, especially not in a fairly classy looking production. Most of the movie takes place inside the school, but the scope imagery, above average acting, and slow burn, Psycho-tinged storyline puts it well above the HGL type low budget films of the day (where such gore shots wouldn't be a surprise).
But it was really the typical slasher plot that I was most taken aback by - how is this movie not mentioned more often when folks discuss the origins of the sub-genre (where Halloween is usually given credit, and then someone says "Black Christmas was first!"). It's as close to the basic template as any of them; a girl arrives at an isolated school, makes some friends, some enemies, and then girls start being picked off one by one. It's even a whodunit, and a pretty good one at that; without spoiling the killer's identity, I will say that I only guessed it a few seconds before it was revealed, after a fairly genius sequence in which the person you will probably suspect is the killer discovers the body of a "safe" character and panics.
It's also got some pretty good "horror" scenes that have little to do with the slasher plot. The lady that runs the place is quite strict and abusive; at one point she gives a girl a pretty brutal whipping for a minor infraction. Director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador even manages to make a needlepoint class seem like high class terror, with closeups of needles and spools of thread being unraveled and such. And as is mandatory for any "new girl" movie, one of the popular girls instantly hates her and bullies her, culminating in a fairly disturbing scene where they force our heroine to act out a dance routine. The slasher plot is almost sort of a bonus; even if it was removed you'd still be left with a "psychological thriller" about the tortured students of a strange boarding school.
I am kind of curious about the 75-80 minute versions I have read about, though. I can easily see how a few scenes could be removed without hurting the plot too much, though it would certainly be a much less interesting experience. For example, there's a scene late in the film where the headmaster has a breakdown of sorts during a dictation class - one could think it was useless in the grand scheme of things, but it was this sort of stuff that gave it more of a personality (not to mention helped misdirect you away from the killer's real identity). However, a distributor looking to book this into drive-ins would certainly cut out anything that wasn't full blown horror, especially in the third act when folks would be expecting a faster pace. Indeed, I was a bit surprised when things slowed down again after a graphic murder during an escape attempt in the rain - I thought for sure it was kicking off the climax, what with only 20 minutes to go, but then they cut to the next morning and talk/go to class/etc before the horror kicks in again.
Back to Serrador - I think I need to see more from this guy. I've never heard it mentioned that I can recall, but it seems like the film could have been an influence on movies like Suspiria and The Woods, and so even if you like those other movies more (I prefer Suspiria, myself), Serrador deserves some sort of credit. He was also behind Who Can Kill A Child?, a pretty great killer kid movie from a few years later, as well as the OK enough Blame from the Six Films To Keep You Awake series - but is that it? A quick look at his filmography reveals mostly TV movies and shows - did he do any other horror features? I'd like to believe that if he had 2-3 more of this caliber that his name would come up more often, but it seems that this might be it for his horror feature output. And after the other day's Dinner With A Vampire, I am quite hesitant to check out a television project from a filmmaker I admire. Anyone have any recommendations?
Oddly, from what I understand, the best widely available version of this movie is available from an Elvira DVD, which I am pretty sure is the same transfer presented here, albeit not as compressed (since this shares disc space with three other movies). Throughout the movie you'll see unnatural quick fades to black, which would be where Elvira would come in with her idiotic skits (again, not an Elvira fan), but obviously those are not present here. Someone on Youtube has also presented the uncut one, however it is a full frame transfer, which means you get those 30 seconds back but miss 40% of the picture! But don't be swayed by "original Spanish" language tracks - the movie was shot in English and redubbed anyway, so no matter what you get it'll be dubbed (and the dubbing is actually pretty good - lip sync is way off but the actors are solid).
At any rate, definitely worth hunting down if you enjoy REALLY old-school slashers and primarily female casts (many of them are quite fetching I must say; another reason to look for the best transfer possible). And it finally justified my purchase of the Pure Terror set, which had produced almost nothing but disappointments so far.
What say you?
P.S. I have finally added "Spanish" as a genre to join Italian and French... if you see an older title that needs the tag, please let me know!