"The Suspense is Sheer Terror in The House That Screamed !"
Directed by the Uruguayan born Narciso Ibáñez Serrador this 1969 Spanish production is truly one of the masterpieces from the golden age of euro horror. Sadly it fell into relative obscurity soon after its release as perhaps even by 1969 its gothic trappings were getting a bit dated to movie goers. In addition it was not released in the U.S. until 1971 by A.I.P. where it was buried it on dbl. & triple bills, some of which made sense (Night of Dark Shadows) while others not so much (Trog & The Incredible Two Headed Transplant). Thanks to some late night T.V. showings in the 70’s where even in a severely edited form it still managed to make a not soon forgotten impression on young horror viewers. With atmosphere that literally drips gothic ambiance it looks back somewhat to such films as The Innocents, but in other regards looks ahead to the slasher & women in prison genres with even a foreshadowing of Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
New student Theresa (Cristina Galbo from The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue) arrives at the school and though it’s explained to her guardian by Madame Forneau that it’s a place of higher learning it’s soon made evident that most of the girls are just unwanted by their families and dumped there. Her guardian (who’s most definitely just washing his hands of her) explains that he’s not a relative, but as he pulls a large amount of money out is simply dropping her off as a favor to her mother (later it’s implied that Theresa’s mother is a prostitute).
Theresa soon begins to see and witness for herself the many dark secrets lurking in the school including the half-seen presence of Mme. Forneau son Luis (John Moulder-Brown) who spends his time lurking around the garden and spying on the girls thru heating grates. There’s a strong hint of incest in their relationship with his mother’s smothering love (“One day you’ll meet a woman as good as me”) adding a bit more creepiness to the proceedings. Luis is also secretly meeting one the girls – Isabella (played by the very beautiful Maribel Martin - Bell from Hell & The Blood Spattered Bride). This leads to a very squirm inducing lecture from Mom “These girls are not good enough for you….what you need is a woman like me!”
The school’s only contact with the outside world is a visit from a young woodcutter who while nominally there to deliver firewood is also used as a controlling device by Irene as she chooses who will be able to visit him in the barn for a roll in the hay (with another wonderfully intercut scene between one of the girls visits to the barn and a sexual tension filled sewing class). Plus several of the girls have disappeared with the explanation that they've "run away" (including Isabelle) which although not thrusting itself into the center of the film’s plot, everything does slowly begin to converge together (with several surprises along the way). Although the main protagonist may be easily guessed the ending still packs quite a jolt.
Something also must be said about the house itself which almost functions as another character as its one of the more remarkable set pieces ever to appear in a horror film set in this period. It’s an amazingly realized and detailed atmospheric presence with a dusty/ faded elegance, but with something ominous lurking below the surface (such as a beetle scuttling across a table or a broken mirror in the ballet room).
Filled with gorgeous dissolve shots and low light photography in candlelit halls this is beautifully shot in scope by Manuel Berenguer (King of Kings) with a gliding prowling camera (one of the murders in particular is breathtaking) along with excellent costume design by Victor Cortezo (all the girls period clothes are very individual in their look). Most of the complaints about the film from genre fans has been the lack of nudity (although the girls shower together they wear smock-like undergarments), but in my opinion the clothed titillation just adds to the feeling of sexual oppression at the isolated house (as at times it feels like nothing else exists in the world) which only helps ratchet up the tension and feeling of dread. There have been rumors of an "unclothed version" for the foreign market (Spain was still under the censorship of the Franco dictatorship at this time), but nothing has surfaced. Serrador also directed the very excellent Who Can Kill a Child from 1976.
Although shot mostly in English, the dubbing job seems a bit oddly mixed. It's available from Shout Factory as one of their Elvira movies (paired with the Maneater of Hydra) in a widescreen transfer from a somewhat worn print (although seemingly uncut). It also shows up on some of the Mill Creek multi-packs with the same transfer (most likely cobbled from Shout's transfer -complete with the black fades for the edited Elvira interruptions). Shout Factory has announced this has an inclusion in one of their upcoming 4 movie sets but I’m not holding out hope for an upgrade. I was lucky enough to pick up the NoShame Italian DVD which although not English friendly (its available subtitled “out there”) is a significant upgrade image wise. This REALLY needs a nice blu-ray upgrade !