“Build Me A Woman”… THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED Reviewed

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“Schooldays… the happiest days of your life”?

DVD. Region Free. Shoarma Digital. Unrated.

If Enrique López Eguiluz’ La Marca del Hombre Lobo (the inaugural outing for Paul Naschy’s ongoing “tragic wolfman character, Count Waldemar Daninsky) represents the first significant flowering of an Iberian horror sensibility in 1968, the first truly great Spanish horror opus has to be Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s La Residencia (aka The House That Screamed / House Of Evil / The Finishing School / The Boarding School, 1970.) Whereas Eguiluz (and subsequently Naschy and other directors) gleefully mined the Universal and Hammer Horror cycles, maniacally mix-and-matching their conventions  in an orgy of schlock surrealism, Nacho dips into the Hammer legacy with taste and restraint (an impression ably enhanced by the lush orchestral score of Waldo De Los Rios) to come up with a  well constructed, riveting and suspensful narrative en route to a genuinely surprising twist ending, mounting in the process an allegorical critique (i.e. the only kind he could get away with) of the ossification and morbidity of Spanish society under General Franco.

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The film opens with Theresa (Cristina Galbo from Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue, What Have you Done To Solange, et al) arriving at a fin-de-siecle French finishing school for, er, challenging pupils. Madam Fourneau (Lilli Palmer) runs this Dothegirls Hall along the lines of harsh discipline and stifling routine in an attempt to turn her charges into compliant prospective wives. Ballet lessons are designed to distract them from “morbid” (as in “sexual”) thoughts and Fourneau tries to divert her voyeuristically inclined son Luis (John Moulder Brown) from similarly impure musings by banging on about the unworthiness of her pupils, to wit: “None of these girls are any good… in time you’ll find the right girl… you need a woman like me!” (If you ask me, these Oedipal relationships can get a bit incestuous…)

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Needless to say, it’s not too difficult to detect desire seething away not far beneath this hypocritical veneer of propriety. Helping Madam enforce order are an inner circle of collaborators led by the scary Irene (Mary Maude), who takes all-too-obvious sexual pleasure in dishing out the beatings and humiliation. She even controls the rota for conjugal visits to Henry the randy wood chopper, cue hysterical scenes in sewing class as the girls bite their lips and frantically thread their needles in the most overt display of Freudian symbolism since Tom Jones. “Most of the girls here are on the verge of a nervous breakdown”, Theresa is told and no wonder so many of them are running away… or are they? Serrador skillfully steers our attention away from the real story that’s going on and our sympathies in altogether the wrong direction. Just before (and I’m doing my best here to minimise the “spoiler” effect, here) unexpected early death of a sympathetic character (shades of that ultimate Oedipal horror, Hitchcock’s Psycho) the director abruptly freeze frames the action, giving you an opportunity to shout your objection at the screen, suffer the disappointment of being ignored as the grisly action resumes and register just how far you’ve been drawn into this dark fairy tale.

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Lucio Fulci, who seems to have been a bit of a Spanish Horror buff, was generally very guarded (to the point of testiness) about admitting his influences, but amazed me when I interviewed him by volunteering the information that he had pinched the idea for The House By The Cemetery from La Residencia. Perhaps Argento was similarly influenced by its female environment, oppressive school atmosphere and brutal ballet lessons for Suspiria?

The edition under review here, courtesy of the Australian Shoarma label (which released a bunch of interesting stuff on the early crest of the DVD wave and promptly disappeared), seems to be somewhat expurgated. There are references to surreptitious trysts between Theresa and Luis that we don’t get to see and while it’s possible that such scenes were never included in the film, there’s a blatant jump cut that was obviously made to obfuscate the lesbian  overtones of Fourneau tending to the wounds of a girl she’s just had beaten. There are no extras and the the feautre is presented in a none too sharp, distinctly none-anamorphic  transfer wherein vertical lines visibly warp at either side of the screen, all of which lends credence to rumours that Shoarma’s releases were “grey market” at best… strewth, Bruce!

Stop Press: Scream Factory have just announced an upcoming kosher BD release of this one… something to scream about!

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