Proto-Slashers: Looking at the flicks that paved the way for Halloween and the heyday of slasher movies.
The House That Screamed (1969)
Someone is killing the students at a private girls school. Sounds like the premise for any one of countless 80’s slasher flicks, but in this case it’s the plot of the 1969 proto-slasher, The House That Screamed (aka La Residencia and The Finishing School).
Directed by Narcisco Ibáñez Serrador, who also directed the essential Who Can Kill a Child?, this Spanish flick is not to be confused with the 2000 US release of the same name. Set in the early 1900’s, Serrador’s film follows the arrival of new student Theresa (Christina Galbó) as she is enrolled at a creepy girls’ school run by the strict head mistress, Mme. Fourneau (Lilli Palmer). Mme. Fourneau has a unique way of punishing disobedient students. Refuse to copy her dictation and she’ll lock you in a room where teacher’s pet Irene (Mary Maude) and her cronies will strip you nude and whip you. Irene and her pals enjoy the power and the punishment far too much, and Mme. Fourneau is a little too sadism-happy herself as she kisses a student’s bloody back saying, “You made me do this.” Not a good sign for the delicate Theresa who is having enough trouble fitting in. Once the other girls discover that her mother is a cabaret singer (code for prostitute?), Theresa is teased unmercifully to the point that she has no option but to run away. Complicating her plan, however, are both Mme. Fourneau’s nice but creepy teenage son (John Moulder-Brown) who has a compulsive habit of spying on the girls, and the psycho who is slashing though the school’s population unnoticed by staff and students, as everyone assumes that the dead girls have simply run away.
The House That Screamed features a solid cast highlighted by strong female characters, prefiguring slasher classics like The House on Sorority Row. Palmer, Maude, and Galbó, also the star of great genre flicks What Have You Done to Solange?, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and The Killer Must Kill Again, are all outstanding. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Manuel Berenguer and atmospherically and suspensfully directed by Serrador. Each memorable murder is shot in a different style from the previous attack, giving each killing its own feel and style. Like Psycho, there is a shift in audience sympathy, but in House this happens more than once, allowing despicable characters to suddenly become sympathetic. Frequent reference has been made in the genre press to how this film was the inspiration for Dario Argento’s classic Suspira, but any specific inspiration seems to be related only to the gothic atmosphere and the murder-at-a-girls-school setting. POTENTIAL SPOILER: Most entertaining of all is the fact that the ending seems to have directly influenced that good times 80’s slasher Pieces. END POTENTIAL SPOILER.
Though the identity of the killer may not be too difficult to unravel, The House That Screamed is an excellent horror film that is unfortunately difficult to see in North America. Region 0 PAL copies are easier to come across, though the film is offered on a Region 1 NTSC Elvira’s Movie Macabre disc on a double bill with The Maneater of Hydra. Reportedly, though this disc is viewable in a version without Elvira’s jokey comments, the film fades to black any time an Elvira segment is due to appear. Ugh.
I’ve only ever been able to see The House That Screamed on two separate grey market discs that lose the letterboxing after the opening credits, and that both seemed to be duped from the same fuzzy videotape source. I would love to get my hands on a pristine widescreen copy of this awesome flick. And you should too. Enroll in The School That Screamed today to get a crash course in proto-slasher history. If you don’t, Mme. Fourneau and Irene will break out the Cat o’ Nine Tails. You’ve been warned.