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The Forgotten: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's "La Residencia" (1969)

Someone is killing reform school inmates in Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's haunting Spanish gothic thriller, "La Residencia".
At this time of year we want not just any horror films, but horror films with a particular atmosphere. We need creaking Gothic fantasy, not just enthusiastic splatter. There is some of both in La Residencia, which is essentially a slasher movie but which behaves as if it were a ghost story: a few moments of bubbling grue punctuate a great deal of creeping around in elegant sets, the camera spying on the action from suspicious angles, arcing athletically through the vaulted chambers, occasionally fragmenting into a orgiastic flurry of quick cuts...
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador is the man who did for children what Hitchcock did for birds, in Who Can Kill a Child? (1976). This earlier effort was shot in English, owing to to the casting of Lilli Palmer as a corrupt headmistress at a boarding school, and John Moulder-Brown as her son. The German beauty was still glamorous, and apparently ageless, though that isn't quite the same thing as young-looking—without appearing excessively the product of the surgeon's knife, she seemed to have preserved her beauty by some occult, alien means, so that she appears no particular age. Her sculpted lips and impossibly wide eyes are the same as ever. Moulder-Brown, soon to be star of Skolimowski's deeply peculiar swinging London cult classic Deep End, projects an even more uncanny version of the odd, androgynous and unformed quality he would bring to that film.
In this brutal and unsympathetic school catering mainly to the daughters of prostitutes, Palmer rules with an iron fist and the aid of a trio of sadistic, tea-drinking senior girls. Several girls have disappeared, presumed runaways, but soon we will learn that they never leave the premises...alive.
Serrador sets up his basic story efficiently, with many hints of illicit passions: lesbianism, incestuous longings, hormonal urges, and sadist bullying all get an outing: oddly, the film seems too serious to qualify as sheer exploitation. There's a feeling that the period setting and specific genre trappings mask an indictment of the whole of Spanish society under Franco. I was just waiting for an ending which would confirm this rather than backing off into some conservative alibi. I could not possibly have anticipated how extreme the ending would be.
In his third act, Serrador delivers a series of sucker punches, clearly influenced by Hitchcock's trope in Psycho of violently switching protagonist, but Serrador goes even further, brutally hacking down anyone who seems to capture the narrative's interest, however briefly, forcing us to investigate the mystery in the company of the least likely characters, and then delivering a staggeringly grotesque and bleak finale: the killer's identity may not surprise you but their motivation surely will.
Along the way, there are plenty of set-piece scenes, but this isn't some kind of paella giallo: Serrador finds interest in the same kind of classy spookshow atmosphere as The Innocents and The Haunting, while also delivering a frantic montage of embroidery in which the frenzied sewing of the girls becomes a sublimation of adolescent sexual desires. He also blasphemously intercuts evening prayers with a vicious flogging, and steeps the whole situation in a hothouse atmosphere of lust and Catholicism.
Throw in a thunderstorm and convincing, opulent and cavernous sets for his camera and characters to stalk one another through, and you have the makings of some sumptuous Halloween/Day of the Dead entertainment.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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