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{Blu-ray Review} These Girls are Poison: The House That Screamed (1969) and the Horrors of Fascism

“Whatever I do here is no different from what is done at any other school.”

Ballyhooed as one of Spain’s first horror movies, The House That Screamed is barely that until its closing minutes. Despite a couple of grisly and well-shot scenes of violence, most of the horror of The House That Screamed is the horror of repression – although, of course, repression is itself a type of violence, a fact that is ever boiling just beneath the surface of the film.

Courtesy Arrow Video

Released in Spain in 1969, under the title “La residencia,” aka The Finishing School, the picture was later brought out in the States by AIP in 1971 as The House That Screamed, the title for which it is better known. By then, however, it was already a box office hit in its native country, where it became the highest-grossing movie up to that time, raking in the equivalent of roughly a million U.S. dollars. It did not perform as well Stateside, where it had about ten minutes trimmed from its running time and somehow received a GP rating (at the time the equivalent of PG-13) despite the film’s heavy psychosexual themes.

This new Blu-ray from Arrow offers both the original Spanish cut of the film, which clocks in at around 104 minutes with the original title, and the AIP House That Screamed cut. Like a great many European films of the time, The House That Screamed was shot with a combination of actors from different countries all speaking their own native languages, then re-dubbed as needed for export. This means that both versions are here in English, with only some of the characters dubbed and others not.

Indeed, the film’s star is undoubtedly Lilli Palmer, a German actress who transitioned to Hollywood in the 1940s. She received a Golden Globe nod for her role in the 1959 Clark Gable comedy But Not for Me, though horror fans are more likely to recognize her from the 1971 version of Murders in the Rue Morgue or the Nazi clone thriller Boys from Brazil. Here, as the school’s sadistic yet “profoundly human” headmistress, she does an admirable job of holding the screen, even as she is surrounded at all times by nubile young ingenues in various stages of undress.

Courtesy Arrow Video

Critics and film scholars have compared the film unfavorably to Psycho, which is fair only if all you watched was the last five minutes or so. Despite a couple of stabbings which occur first at about the midway point of the film, this overt horror ending feels almost tacked on by comparison to the rich gothic melodrama of the rest of the picture, though it is executed no less artfully for all that, and comes as quite a punch, even when you can’t help but know that it’s on its way.

Sure, there are a handful of murders and the expected whippings and psychological torments that you won’t be shocked to see in a girls’ boarding school movie, but the real horrors of The House That Screamed are taking place outside the walls of the house itself – and, indeed, outside the time period in which the film takes place. Introducing a screening of The House That Screamed at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, Marc Edward Heuck wrote that, “Some clever Spanish filmmakers found a means to tell the world about the ravages and effects of living under totalitarianism, while still working under the strict dictates of the state, and that was through making horror films.”

Though The House That Screamed is a period piece set in 19th-century France, it is pretty clearly meant to evoke the horrors of fascism, under which Spain was suffering at the time the movie was made. The ease with which the psychosexual politics of the boarding house can be read as a microcosm of national fascism is rendered particularly striking when you realize that the film was made in Francoist Spain.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Guillermo del Toro has singled out The House That Screamed as a favorite, calling it a “deranged, Freudian gothic melodrama” and a “keystone of Spanish horror.” Its influence can be seen throughout Del Toro’s filmography, from the psychosexual dynamics of the orphanage in The Devil’s Backbone to the gothic opulence of Crimson Peak to Del Toro’s own extensive metaphors (and outright depictions) of Franco’s Spain. You can even see the ghosts of The House That Screamed (which has no ghosts of its own) in some of the films that Del Toro merely produced, such as The Orphanage (2007).

Courtesy Arrow Video

The debut feature of Narciso Ibanez Serrador, the director, was already a household name in Spain by the time he released The House That Screamed. This was thanks to the Spanish-language horror anthology series he created and helmed, Tales to Keep You Awake, which was a huge hit on Spanish television in the 1960s and has, itself, recently been released on Blu-ray by Severin.

In spite of its box office success, The House That Screamed was one of only two feature films that Serrador would ever direct. The other is probably much better known, at least among American horror fans – the 1976 cult hit Who Can Kill a Child? Fortunately, with this new Arrow Video Blu, fans can now experience this other low-key classic from Serrador, as well.