One of the first Spanish films to be shot in English for the international market, this first theatrical outing for director Serrador must have been an influence on Dario Argento, sharing several striking similarities with Suspiria (1977). It’s an incredibly distinctive and impressive effort in its own right, however.
A young girl and her guardian arrive at a remote French chateau – a private school for “troubled” young girls, run with more than a firm hand by a strict governess and her coterie of favoured senior students. Left to settle in, Teresa is quickly introduced to the quirks of the institution, which include a creepy handyman, the local lusty woodsman and the governess’s overprotected son Luis, who has secret relationships with several of the girls and longs for escape. When the most recent of Luis’ girlfriends disappears – presumed absconded – Teresa becomes increasingly suspicious of the governess and begins to be targetted by her favoured pupil Irene.
The plot, then, is very similar to Suspiria, but in most other ways La Residencia is a very different film. It is shot in scope, but unlike Argento’s starkly lit film, Serrador and his immensely talented DoP Manuel Berenguer, give the film a subtle, pastel-textured look, which imparts a nice tonal shift to the gothic night-time scenes. The scenes set in the greenhouse, in particular, are a riot of colour.
A similar departure from Argento is the performance of the international cast who are uniformly excellent, from the experienced Lilli Palmer to Mary Maude – a minor British television actress who appears in a couple of genre films in the 1970s but otherwise seems not to have fulfilled the promise vividly shown here. As Irene – the favoured girl – she is alternately terrifying and heartbreaking, as she bullies Teresa before finding that her position doesn’t exempt her from the threat lurking in the dark corridors.
Essentially a gothic mystery, the film does contain a couple of nasty murders, which are shot with a skill and sense of style that points to Serrador’s inate understanding of the mechanics of visual horror. Following this film’s release, he made several other genre films – most famously, Quien Puede Matar a un Nino? (1976) – but is perhaps most known in his own country for the groundbreaking TV series Historias para no Dormir which he hosted and wrote for in the manner of Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock (and, of course, Dario Argento, who presented La Porta sul Buio in 1973). The slow-motion stabbing of one of the girls in the greenhouse at night, which is intercut with blood on white roses as the soundtrack slowly slides to a halt is expertly rendered and must have been quite shocking for the time.
The film also contains some daring sexual content, with the suggestive lesbian relationship between the governess and her charges. After one girl is punished by whipping the governess mops the blood from her back and bends over briefly to kiss the girl’s wounds. The girl later removes the smock the girls wear to protect their modesty in the communal showers and taunts the governess. There are hints that the governess has an impure relationship with her son Luis, who is himself depicted as a voyeur. The girls either submit to the advances of the governess to gain favour – as Irene has done – or content themselves with Luis or the regular visits from the local woodsman, the privilege to go to the woodshed being decided by drawing lots. As one girl meets with him, Serrador focuses in on the other girls performing needlecraft in class, their looks of boredom and frustration building with the sounds from the woodshed until one girl symbolically pricks her finger, drawing blood.
If the murders themselves were not shocking enough for 1969, the film’s ending with its mix of incest and necrophilia must have been overwhelming and it still packs a punch today. The film’s high production values, excellent camerwork and strong performances combine to convey a sense of a prestige production which little prepares the viewer for the exploitative content which follows.
A major achievement in the horror genre and a film which urgently needs a properly restored release on DVD.