Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, 1969
Starring: Lilli Palmer, Cristina Galbó, John Moulder-Brown, Mary Maude
Madame Fourneau is the demanding headmistress at a 19th century boarding school for girls who are troubled or have difficult home lives. She teaches them basic skills – sewing, cooking, manners, gardening, and more – but also dishes out some extreme punishments with the help of a student, Irene. Fourneau’s shy, teenage son Luis, who also lives at the school, is warned to stay away from the girls because he mother believes that none of them are good enough for him. Ignoring his mother’s rules, he begins meeting in private with some of the girls and spies on them throughout the day. A new girl, Teresa, arrives and learns that some of the girls have gone missing – presumably they have run away. She will soon learn that the girls have been murdered and hidden somewhere within the boarding school…
Directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, also responsible for a Spanish horror anthonology TV show and the cult favorite Who Could Kill a Child?, he also wrote this film (based on a story by Juan Tébar) and it was his first in the horror genre. It contains several firsts for Spanish cinema: it was the first to be shot in English, hoping to target an international market, and the first to feature a slow-motion close-up of a murder. Though it was distributed in the U.S. by American International Pictures, it failed in the box office and took years to get cult recognition.
While La residencia was technically made in 1969, I am still including it in my ‘70s horror series, because it kicked off a wave of successful and influential Spanish horror film. Beginning under the fascist yoke of Francisco Franco, who didn’t die until 1975 and exacted some severe censorship, Spain produced some of the most antiauthoritarian, surreal, and rebellious horror of the ‘70s. La residencia is clearly an important piece of this puzzle and it would have been a shame not to include it.
Also known as The Boarding School, The Finish School, and House of Evil, La residencia is full of wonderfully creepy atmosphere, which is bolstered by the period setting. Stylish and lovely, La residencia seems to take some inspiration from the old dark house films of the ‘30s. Emphasis is place on the school’s dark corners and Gothic architecture, secret peep holes, candlelight, etc. Though the murders aren’t gory, they are very well shot and provide a number of interesting set pieces. There are elements of the giallo film present, as well as a women-in-prison exploitation feel due to the fact that the girls are lorded over by the sadistic headmistresses and are confined to some very close quarters. Coincidentally, the first official women-in-prison film, Jess Franco’s 99 Women, was released the same year.
The main female leads do an excellent job, particularly Lili Palmer (The Boys from Brazil) as the domineering headmistress. Mary Maude is also excellent as her second in command, Irene. It’s a shame the actress didn’t go on to have a more developed career in genre cinema, like the rest of the main cast. Cristina Galbó (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, What Have They Done to Solange) loosely the protagonist, is likable and charismatic. There are some strong supporting performances, such as from John Moulder-Brown (Vampire Circus) in the only male lead role and the lovely Maribel Martin (The Blood Spattered Bride).
Don’t expect too much from La residencia – it is conservative compared to films made just a little later and there is barely any nudity or violence. Regardless, the film made some daring steps at a time when censorship was at an all-time high. There are themes of dominance and submission, lesbianism, repressed sexuality, and serial murder. There’s an S&M punishment angle here, which is expressed in a scene where a young girl is forced to strip naked and be whipped. More shockingly, particularly for the time, there is also an incest angle. Forneau is obsessed with the idea that there is no one good enough for her beloved soon and that he needs someone more like her.
La residencia also feels a little like an early giallo or even a slasher, as the murdered girls disappear and no one knows to look for them (this theme would also reappear in Argento’s Suspiria). Voyeurism is of key importance; only the audience knows of the murders, though other characters also constantly watch each other for signs of weakness, misbehavior, or seduction. Madame Forneau keeps the showers communal and never shirks her duty of “supervising” the girls as they bathe.
The film’s major issue is that it is very dialogue heavy and there are a number of talkie scenes between the schoolgirls. There is no central lead – she appears halfway through the film – and there is too much shifting between central characters. Though this is used as somewhat of a red herring, it is unclear with whom we should feel sympathy.
In later Spanish horror throughout the ‘70s, there’s an undeniable sense of being thrown off balance by the plot, something La residencia exercises in spades. This is further emphasized by a surprising ending that went on to influence future Spanish horror, particularly the great Pieces. Though somewhat difficult to get ahold of, you can find La residencia on an import DVD or floating around online. A mix of mystery, giallo, psychological thriller, old dark house movie, and women-in-prison film, La residencia is not for everyone, but will greatly please fans of classic and Spanish horror and comes recommended.