The Finishing School

By: Katie Rehberger

During the Haunted House unit we have looked at houses haunted by devils/demons, ghosts, both demons and ghosts, as well as houses that just seem to be haunted themselves. What we haven’t seen yet is a house haunted by the living (except for maybe Carl in Horrorstor).  The 1969 Spanish film La Residencia (or, in English, The House that Screamed) offers a unique take on the traditional haunted house while also exploring several other paths of horror, making it a truly bone chilling film that holds up well despite its age.

The first horror film by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, La Residencia is set in a French boarding school for troubled young women. The boarding school, however, is more like a prison than a school, run by the strict Senora Fourneau (played by Lilli Palmer) who doesn’t let the girls leave and frequently resorts to corporal punishment. Senora Fourneau also makes sure to keep her own son away from the girls.  The girls, however, start disappearing despite the fact that they can’t leave the boarding school. This plot allows the film to encompass several subgenres of horror—psychological, slasher, haunting, and monster.

The environment that Senora Fourneau cultivates with her severity creates a crucial layer of psychological horror. The general tone of the film is rather tense because of it. Viewers are immediately made uncomfortable by the way these girls—who aren’t even the delinquents they’re made out to be—are treated. The tension is only increased when the first girl disappears. Fear doesn’t even necessarily arise from the disappearance itself—although that certainly is creepy—but the way in which Senora Fourneau responds to the disappearance: by locking everyone in her abusive school. Senora Fourneau puts spectators on edge and the film plays with this, exploring other topics that will increase spectator discomfort. The film does not shy away from sex—there are strong lesbian undertones due to the all girl nature of the school. Viewers never get a clear answer, but it is heavily alluded to that there is sexual abuse occurring within the walls of the school—a truly disturbing thought. Not only that, but, because the girls are confined, they have made a schedule that dictates who gets to sleep with the one gardener when he comes by—a schedule with dubious requirements to become a part of it. The way sex functions in the film is truly unnerving.

Working in tandem with the psychological horror are the disappearances and murders taking the place. The school appears to be haunted as no one can seem to find the source of the terror that has befallen the school. The scariest scene in the film is the last scene when all of our questions are answered. Even though the unsettling and terrifying tensions that have been building up to this point are resolved in this scene, that doesn’t mean the horror dissipates. Rather, the horror culminates in one of my favorite scenes ever (horror or non horror). The scene is not only terrifying because the answer to the murders is so disturbing, it is also spectacularly scripted and acted. I watched the last scene in a film class (having not watched the rest of the movie) and I almost cried it was so great. I then went home and watched the rest of the movie. I expected that the last scene wouldn’t be as impactful the second time around, but it was even scarier and even greater because I was so wound up from the rest of the film. Therefore, I won’t give anything away, but I would strongly recommend at least watching the end of the movie. And watch the totally cheesy YouTube trailer above.

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