Saturday, October 13, 2018

The House That Screamed (1970)

Director: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Notable Cast: Lilli Palmer, Cristina Galbo, John Moulder-Brown, Mary Maude, Candida Losada, Pauline Challoner, Tomas Blanco, Victor Israel, Teresa Hurtado, Maria Jose Valero, Conchita Paredes, Ana Maria Pol, Mari Carmen Duque, Paloma Pages

The House That Screamed is one of those films that flies just under the radar. It doesn’t have a lot of backing from being part of any larger more mainstream movement, in particular the wave of Hammer Horror or the blooming giallo boom of the era, which does mean that it is often shoved to the side unfairly, but the film is still an impressive late 60s (even if it wasn’t released until 1970 or later in some places) horror film. It balances this unique sense of early slasher elements with dense gothic atmosphere and a slick and often nuanced sense of visual chemistry. More often than not, comparisons to the iconic Mario Bava through the lens of a Hammer film could be made, and that only comes as a compliment. The House That Screamed finds that sweet spot between exploitative elements and artistry with its narrative and it deserves far more fanfare than it has received.

Director Serrador is a fascinating case study as one looks back. Judging from his direction on The House That Screamed, one would assume that he was a master of the macabre, producing wildly acclaimed horror films for a large portion of his career. This is not the case though as one looks back through his filmography on IMDB. Instead of a plethora of horror classics, he mostly stayed true to his work in television for the majority of his career. At one point, he stepped aside to film another horror film, the also often overlooked but well regarded Who Can Kill a Child?, but otherwise the man stuck to his television. In a way, it makes a film like The House That Screamed even more of a gem.

For the most part, it’s the director’s assured and steady hand in the film that allows it to rise to such high quality. The script, for all of its own nuances about the social stigma of being a young woman, sexuality, family lineage, and the pitfalls of discipline, is relatively straight forward as a murder mystery when it comes to the bones of the plot. A new girl arrives at a boarding school, one with a spotty past, some girls are disappearing, and a mystery unravels as the audience wonders who could be the killer. This is giallo and slasher 101 basics when it comes to plotting. Often enough, the film even fringes on floating into exploitation territory with some sexualized sequences and plotting choices (one scene takes place in the girl’s shower room, for example,) but rest assured that whenever that seems to be the case The House That Screamed never dives right in. In lesser hands, this would have been a full-on sleaze filled exploitation film. It never reaches that point and director Serrador seemingly understands when to pull away from that to push the film into higher brow territory that focuses on characters, tone, and narrative.

Many horror fans may have issues that The House That Screamed is a slower film. This is true, in many ways, but the slow burn approach is intentional and meticulous in its crafting. The first real kill sequence doesn’t come until half way through the film and it’s shot to be artistic and tension driven more than anything else. The film instead spends a lot of time truly developing the characters, the context, and the narrative chemistry which works brilliantly on the back end when the twists and turns of plotting come to fruition. Partnered with that are some fantastic performances all the way around, although some of the nuance of character building in the head mistress of the school (played by Lilli Palmer) certainly steals the show in terms of great acting, and The House That Screamed oozes style and effective film making. 

While all of this only creates a foundation for a great horror film, there is one last thing that needs to be mentioned in how The House That Screamed effectively works as a film. Quite frankly, it’s the use of sets. Despite the fact that the audience is shown that this school has plenty of various rooms – a garden, kitchen, massive communal shower, sheds, dining hall, etc. – the film is shot to give the entire thing a rather suffocating feeling. There is certainly a gothic tone to how the place is built and shown, detailed impressively to recreate the time period, and it uses levels and depth to splendid effect. Like the previously mentioned Bava, The House That Screamed just uses its setting to maximum effect and that needed to be addressed in why it’s so successful as a horror film.

The House That Screamed may not be a film for everyone. It’s firmly rooted in that pre-slasher horror foundation, establishing some of those murder mystery tropes, but it hardly adheres to it strictly. The film is meticulously paced to build characters and dynamics for third act payoff, it doesn’t have a huge body count because each horror sequence is slathered in tension and emotional shock, and the manner that the narrative crescendos to its whip wild finale is the perfect blend of fringe exploitation and artistic merit. Of all the films that needs to be rediscovered, The House That Screamed is most certainly one of them.


• Two versions of the film
— Theatrical version (in HD – 94 mins)
— Extended version (in HD with Standard Definition inserts – 104 mins)
• Interview with actor John Moulder-Brown
• Film Festival Q & A with actress Mary Maude
• Theatrical Trailer/TV Spot
• Radio Spots
• Still Gallery

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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