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The House That Screamed (Narciso Ibanez Serrador, 1969)


     During the late sixties and early seventies, there was a rash of exploitation movies set in dormitories, convents, and boarding schools. They used those outwardly classy settings as a vehicle to smuggle sex and violence featuring groups of nubile teen girls. One of the finest, for sure, has to be Narciso Ibanez Serradorís 1969 The House That Screamed. Set in an upper-class girlís boarding school, this gothic drama unfolds with a level of control that warrants comparisons to horror film greats like Argento and Bava. Thanks to its slow, steady accumulation of tension, the movie stands as an absorbing benchmark for its genre.


      Although thereís a serial killer running around in its spooky mansion, the bulk of The House That Screamed has other concerns. Indeed, with simmering sexual tension, both between the girls and the resident boy toy and the girls themselves, the arrival of a new girl whose motherís past is in question, and a headmistress who is overbearing enough a mother that she can repress an entire school of girls, the movie has enough to occupy its time that the first murder doesnít occur until the forty-minute mark. When the first nubile maiden is finally dispatched, the moment is less shocking for its violence than due to Serradorís presentation of it. The scene is artfully depicted as a series of lap dissolves, melding the struggling girl, flowers doused in blood, and the assault itself, the soundtrack slowing until it falls out of sync. The scene takes on a distinctly erotic quality, which makes sense, as the victim was under the impression she was on her way to a romantic interlude.


     This artful murder is typical of Serradorís ability to merge his filmís melodramatic and scary elements. It resolves, however unpleasantly, the character tensions that were building to that moment. His set design, which is cramped with antiques and musty corners, lends itself equally well to the horror and gothic romance genres. In this context, the creepy stuff, such as doors that mysteriously open themselves or the peeping tom in their shower room, underline the anxieties of the young girls. Serrador makes the most of his deliberate pacing and the air of sexual panic, feeding them directly into the eerie tension that builds throughout. The school itself becomes a realm that breeds resentment and perversion, and the movie pays off that atmosphere with an ending that offers a suitably nasty distortion of the headmistressís teachings. Taken as a whole, the sinister and accomplished The House That Screamed is something of a classic of European horror.



Jeremy Heilman