Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: As The Conjuring creeps into theaters, we look back on some of our favorite old-dark-house movies.
The House That Screamed (1969)
Strictly speaking, The House That Screamed (aka: La Residencia) is not a haunted-house movie: There isn’t a ghost and the house isn’t possessed or even consciously malevolent. But it always feels like one, because the setting—a boarding school for “wayward” girls in turn-of-the-last-century France—utterly dominates the proceedings. Set down at the end of a lonely country road, the school suggests both a Jane Austen-style gothic mansion and a kinky-creepy S&M dungeon. Accordingly, the movie sometimes resembles tony, classical horror pics like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents or Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, and at other times feels like a second cousin to Caged Heat or Ilsa: The Wicked Warden.
Directed by Spanish filmmaker Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, who later directed the cult fave Who Can Kill A Child?, the movie has a fairly straightforward plot: A stern, occasionally sadistic headmistress (Lilli Palmer) tries to keep her charges in line while girl after girl goes missing. For a time, it seems as if something supernatural might be going on, but then one of the girls breaks curfew for a midnight liaison in the greenhouse with the headmistress’ creepy, eunuch-like son (John Moulder-Brown) and is stabbed to death by an unseen assailant. Was it the son? The monosyllabic groundskeeper? The headmistress herself? It’s not too hard to guess the culprit, but the unmasking is done with such creepy finesse that it’s shocking all the same.
Throughout, Serrador works the repressed sexual tension to a fever pitch (there are several naughty-schoolgirl thrashings), but he mostly avoids T&A sleaze in favor of a satisfying dark-and-stormy-night vibe. There’s a superb, lengthy sequence in which the newest student (Cristina Galbó) feels her way around a darkened living room in an effort to escape the school, and another in which the headmistress investigates strange sounds coming from the creepy-as-hell attic. The House That Screamed was reportedly a major influence on Dario Argento’s Suspiria (which arrived almost a decade later), but if you ask me it’s the superior film. Instead of settling for stylishly nonsensical set pieces, as Argento does, Sarrador focuses on story, mood, and tension. And the violence, when it comes, isn’t meant to make us cheer and applaud: It’s intimate and unsettling, just as it is in all the best horror films.
Availability: Several bare-bones DVD releases, and rental and purchase from Amazon Instant Video. A low-quality dubbed version is also streaming for free on YouTube.