November 11, 2012

La residencia (1969)

While in many other national film industries, the horror genre had been previously explored almost since the beginning of cinema, in Spain its development had been almost null, as other than some fantasy experiments by film pioneer Segundo de Chomón and Edgar Neville's 1944 film "La Torre de los Siete Jorobados", there wasn't really a proper horror film made by the Spaniard film industry until the arrival of the 1960s. The main reason for this was the hard censorship that Francisco Franco's government had over filmmakers, but in 1962 several changes began to take place in the industry that opened the door for horror movies. And the two most important persons in this rising genre were the filmmakers Jesús Franco and Narciso Ibáñez Serrador. Born in Uruguay to a family of actors, Ibáñez Serrador began his career in Spain initially on theater, later on television, where he put his taste for horror to work in the legendary TV series "Historias para no dormir". After the huge success of this TV series, Ibáñez Serrador released in 1969 his feature length debut: "La residencia".

Set in 19th century France, "La residencia" (in English "The House that Screamed") is the story of a boarding school for girls directed by the strict Mrs. Fourneau (Lilli Palmer). To the school arrives a new student, Teresa (Cristina Galbó), who soon discovers the secrets hidden by the facade of discipline the school has. One of the students, Irene (Mary Maude), trusted assistant to Mrs. Fourneau, takes a particular interest in Teres, and seeks to torture here and humiliate her every time she can. Mrs. Fourneau herself doesn't miss a chance to violently punish the rebel Catalina (Pauline Challoner). While this takes place, Teresa secretly befriends Luis (John Moulder-Brown), son of Mrs. Fourneau, who lives hidden at the school, as his mother doesn't want him to befriend the young girls of the house. Teresa wishes to leave, not only because of the constant humiliations she suffers, but also because several students have gone missing without a trace in the last days, so fear begins to run rampant through the walls of the house.

Based on a story by Juan Tébar, the screenplay for "La residencia" was written by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador himself (under the name of Luis Peñafiel), whom mixes several classic elements of horror to shape a quite innovative story for Spanish horror. On one hand, the setting on an isolated mansion of 19th century brings back memories of traditional Gothic horror fiction, while the plot line of having Teresa facing the tortures of the sadistic Irene give the story a pretty subversive touch of rebellion against authority. Finally, the main plot of the serial killer on the loose, makes "La residencia" an interesting ancestor of the slasher subgenre. However, the most interesting thing in "La residencia"'s screenplay is the amount of readings its plot can have, as there's not only a thinly veiled criticism to authoritarian regimes (such as the one headed by Francisco Franco), but the way Ibáñez develops his characters includes a risky but quite elegant touch of lesbianism in the relationship between Teresa and Irene.

Elegance is perhaps the best way to define the style that director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador employs in "La residencia", style that gives a greater importance to suspense and tension. With a remarkable work of cinematography by Manuel Berenguer, director Ibáñez Serrador creates a film where the atmosphere of repression is felt in every frame. Taking good advantage to his location, Ibáñez Serrador makes his young characters more like prisoners than students, under the strict rule of Fourneau (and the ruthless enforcement of Irene). The fear felt by the characters towards their oppressive environment, is portrayed by Ibáñez Serrador with great detail, and the perfect example is the knitting lesson sequence, where with a brilliant use of montage, the director manages to show the sexual repression latent in the young ladies. As it can be seen, it's suspense rather than horror what makes the most predominant element in the film, though when the killer finally strikes, Ibáñez Serrador creates several images of great impact (and innovative for its time).

With "La residencia", Ibáñez Serrador was trying to reach an international public, so despite its multinational cast, the film was dubbed to English (a common practice in Eurpean cinema of its time). The dubbing isn't that bad, the great quality of some of the performances can still be felt. The crown jewel of the film is the performance by German actress Lilli Palmer, whom as Mrs. Fourneau makes one of the best works in her entire career. With great dignity and an extraordinary screen presence, Palmer creates a character of such an intensity that truly leaves a powerful impression even when she's not in the screen. Palmer manages to fuse the oppressive Mrs. Fourneau with the ominous atmosphere of her school. Excellent as well is the performance of British actress Mary Maude as Irene, who makes a superb work of acting as Mrs. Fourneau's loyal assistant, abusing her position of power to torture her classmates. In front of such excellent jobs, Cristina Galbó is a tad overshadowed, however, she manages to rise up to the challenge and deliver a terrific job.

Being without a doubt one of the best works in Spanish horror, "La residencia" is a great example of Gothic horror that quite possibly serve as inspiration to Italian filmmaker Dario Argento to make "Suspiria" (which is also set at a boarding school). Innovative, captivating and full of suspense, "La residencia" rests on the great care that director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador put in its making. However, despite its many virtues, there are some details that can't be totally forgotten. Perhaps the most obvious one is the complete abandonment of some of the film's most interesting subplots (specially one referring to Catalina), which end up unresolved in favor of the main plot. This is probably the result of a screenplay where Ibáñez Serrador tried to include multiple ideas that in the end had to be sacrificed. Another detail is that perhaps the identity of the killer is a bit too predictable, though it's worth to point out that this doesn't diminish the climax's impact, which is enhanced by a remarkable camera-work and the superb work of Lilli Palmer.

Despite its flaws, "La residencia" is a major work of Spanish horror, and a clear example of the great talent of director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador (talent that would shine again in his 1976's classic "¿Quién puede matar a un niño?"). With its beautiful cinematography and the haunting musical score by Waldo de los Ríos, "La residencia" is a film that, like the best Gothic horror stories, employs the conventions of its genre to make a subtle and elegant portrait of sexual repression. While the film had a pretty cold reception upon its release (in both Spain and in foreign markets), "La residencia" is a film a lot more intelligent that what would seem at first sight, because behind its plot of a serial killer is hidden a harsh criticism to oppressive regimes and their followers. A true forgotten classic of horror cinema.


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