Mme. Fourneau (Lilli Palmer) runs a strict boarding school for "wayward" young girls in a secluded part of the French countryside. Since these girls are, in Fourneau's own words: "no good at all", unusual methods of discipline are employed by the headmistress—solitary confinement and whipping, carried out with relish by lesbian head-prefect Irene (Mary Maude) being the main tactics. The sexual undertones to these abuses of power are not hard to determine, but they are only the tip of a very large iceberg: suppressed perversion and repressed desire run rampant at the school!
Irene uses her position of authority to sexually bully any pupil she takes a liking too; she also organises weekly illicit meetings with the man who delivers the school's firewood for one of the perpetually frustrated schoolgirls. Fourneau's young son Luis (John Moulder-Brown) is kept in isolation by his possessive mother—who doesn't want him to be corrupted by the "no-good" pupils at the school—however, the youngster regularly peeps on the girls when they take their weekly (clothed) showers. Mme Fourneau's affection for her son also appears to exceed the normal bounds of motherly love! No wonder then that a number of girls have recently escaped from the school.
Except that they haven't! Unknown to anyone, a maniac killer stalks the school's shadowy hallways and is secretly killing off the pupils one by one! Into this seething cauldron of sexual torment and hidden danger comes an unwitting new pupil, Theresa (Cristina Galbó). She soon catalysis latent tensions at the school when she starts a secret friendship with Luis, which quickly excites the interests of both Irene, and the school killer!
Spanish horror is usually associated with the idiosyncratic oddness of Jess Franco, or Paul Naschy's unique take on the Universal monster movies of the thirties. "La Residencia" feels more like a combination of the stylish British Hammer movies of the late fifties/early sixties, and the Gothic atmospherics and salubrious themes of sixties Italian horror—particularly the work of Mario Bava. With the film being released in the same year as Dario Argento's debut, there would also seem to be a clear connection between "La Residencia" and the modern-master of Italian horror's greatest work: "Suspiria". The general subject matter is certainly very similar; and the young Cristina Galbó -- who plays the new arrival at the school -- looks like, and has the general doe-eyed demeanour of, Suspiria's Suzy Banyon. But the connection runs much deeper still; the graceful, roaming camera moves and artistic compositions of "La Residencia" also prefigure Argento's hyper-kinetic style and the beautifully composed shots of the director's best seventies work. Ibáñez-Serrador's camera is constantly on the move, roaming around the characters and following them from room to room -- and always showing off the marvelously elaborate sets to their best advantage!
In fact, it is hard to find fault with this film in any area. For instance, while Argento's work is often criticised for its poorly developed characters or indifferent dialogue (not always fairly), no such criticism could ever be leveled at Chicho Ibáñez-Serrador's splendid film! It excels in every area -- all the main characters are intriguing and well rounded, and all the performances are uniformly convincing. It is particularly noteworthy that, despite their quirks or unpleasantness, almost every character ends up being in some way sympathetic by the end of the film. It is the repressive atmosphere of the school which is the real "villain", and leads to the macabre and disturbing events revealed at the conclusion. It is also interesting to note that the killer's victims are always characters that the audience has come to care about rather than just faceless background characters introduced simply to be killed off.
Speaking of killing, although the film is in no way gory by today's standards, it's murder scenes are conducted in an extremely stylish and artistic manner and display a number of unusual flourishes. One scene utilises a freeze-frame just before a character's throat is slit which is very effective in jolting the viewer, simply for the sheer unexpectedness of the technique; another murder is conducted in slow motion, in time to Waldo de los Rios' elegiac theme music. Although dealing with taboos surrounding sexuality, the film probably looks rather tame to modern audiences, but the brief glimpses of nudity and hints at incest, etc., were considered quite risqué at the time and it is still powerful today thanks to its skilful editing and fantastic performances. Not many films could turn a schoolgirls' sewing lesson into an illustration of repressed sexual frustration!
This film is really deserving of a Blue Underground style restoration job and a special edition DVD; but unfortunately, this doesn't look to be immediately forthcoming. There is a Spanish DVD available at the moment from Divisa, but it has no English subtitles and the transfer is apparently not great. The best bet is a PAL DVD released by Shoarma Digital. This disc is quite hard to get hold of and only appears to be available from the web retailer www.lfvw.com. The transfer is actually rather good -- with a clear, crisp image and good solid colours; but it is non-anamorphic and exhibits a few persistent artifacts. The film's ratio appears to exceed the 2.35:1 scope usually cited, and actually seems even wider -- which is a good thing since the director utilises every inch of the frame. The sound quality is rather strange. A Spanish print has been used for the transfer and an English dub track has been rather inexpertly synched with it! The English dub is pretty good -- much better than a lot of the dubs you find on many Euro Horror films -- but the track often goes severely out of synch with the image, and the Orchestral score sounds like it is being broadcast from a small speaker at the bottom of a deep swimming pool! This disc does appear to be the best bet at the moment though. Anyone who is a fan of Hammer, Bava, or Argento will probably find something to appreciate in this obscure gem. If you are a fan of all three you will probably be in seventh heaven like I was!