Movie: The House That Screamed (1969)

The choice of lens one puts on a camera is critically important for each shot in a movie.  Most wide-angle lenses have a certain amount of fish-eye effect to them.  Objects in the center of the frame will be correctly proportioned, while those on the periphery will be abnormally thin.  This is why usually, when such a lens is employed, the camera won’t pan across the room, as objects moving across the frame would morph from thin to thick and back again.  That would be distracting, so films are never shot using only such a lens.

I’m guessing they only had one lens, and it was that kind, when making 1969’s The House That Screamed.  I say because there are a great many scenes where it is used in tracking or panning shots, and that distracting shape-distorting occurs.  There are even static shots where characters cross in front of the camera, resulting in the same effect.  The result is what I imagine it would be like it one tried to watch any movie through a peephole in a door.

I would usually suspect the over-use and abuse of this lens to be moviemaking done on a meagre budget.  That doesn’t appear to be the case, however, as most other technical aspects of this picture are at a professional level.  The lighting, in particular, is top-notch, with some scenes being perfectly visible when only a match or a few candles are supposedly used to light the scene (admittedly, I could perceive additional lighting in some of those moments, but it was not immediately obvious).

I came to suspect the wide-angle distortion was intentionally done to make the world this film is set in even more disorienting.   Not that it would take much to make this setting disorienting.  A gothic mansion in Spain serves as a boarding school for wayward girls.  Despite being actively in use, everything looked dusty to my eyes.  Some elements of the place even appear to be in disrepair, such as a shattered mirror behind a ballet rail.

Lilli Palmer runs the school with an iron fist.  She is overly fond of brown in her clothing choices, always with a high collar, usually with a necktie.  Her hair is always pulled back tightly.  Given her heavy German accent and the occasionally odd line reading, she struck me as being like if Udo Kier was in drag as Isla, she-wolf of the SS.  It is no surprise she has a subordinate (Mary Maude) who dresses the same way as her, and whom she encourages to flail troublesome students with a whip.

I’m sure the Kier connection entered my mind because of the visual presentation.  Even in the opening credits, I was thinking of Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula, as a mansion somewhere in Europe appears while a needle-drop of a classical record fills the soundtrack.  I swear this even looks like the same film stock was used for all three features.

But whereas Paul Morrisey’s films had a winking self-awareness, this Spanish film plays it completely straight.  I’m not sure if that is to its benefit or its detriment, because the proceedings are so ludicrous.

Let’s start with John Moulder-Brown as Palmer’s son.  Here we have an inherently creepy lad, who is one of only three males with potential for contact with any of the girls while they are at the school.  His mother, wisely, forbids him from having any contact with the students.  On the other hand, she also repeatedly reinforces the disturbing urge for him to find a woman like herself.  “You need a woman like me.”  There is also a skin-crawling bit where she kisses him on the lips, and a bit too fully and for too long.  This guy is going to be managing a run-down motel one day and conversing with his dead mother, isn’t he?

One of the two other guys is a chubby maintenance man with a lazy eye.  I never suspected this guy for a second once the girls start getting killed, as he has “red herring” written all over him.  Nor did I suspect the remaining guy in the picture, who comes to the school periodically to deliver wood.  And the guy brings the wood in more than one way, as a different girl meets him in the barn each time for a (literal) roll in the hay.  Why Joe Dallesandro isn’t playing this guy, I will never know.

So: girl’s school (complete with ballet studio) somewhere in Europe, overseen by a tyrannical matron, and there’s a killer on the loose murdering the students.  It is inevitable viewers will recall Suspiria, which was made almost a decade later.  But I was a reminded of Salo just a bit, given how some of Palmer’s students who were apparently once her victims turn into tormentors of their peers.  As seems to happen a lot in real life, the victims become the victimizers.

There were a few surprises here.  One I can’t really say much about is how the protagonist of the movie abruptly changes from the latest student, whom we have been with since the opening titles, to possibly the least likely character most people would root for.  Another surprise is the near-absence of nudity.  There may be an obligatory scene where the girls are in the showers, but even that scene is surprising chaste.  The young women are all trying to wash themselves through some sort of thin garment each is wearing.  I was left wondering how clean one could possibly get from showering while clothed.

At the start of this piece, I went on at some length about the usual choice of lens used throughout the picture.  But even more distracting is the voice work.  Typical of movies made in Europe at that time, it does not appear to be shot in sync-sound.  But the dialog on the soundtrack matches the lip movements on the screen at random, at best.  At least the feeling and sentiment, which is the most important aspect, is still conveyed.  It’s just the timing is off.  But it is so off that, regardless of the language it was actually filmed in, I wonder it if matches any language.

The House That Screamed has very few surprises, but you could do worse.  Fans of Suspiria will find this weirdly prescient.  There are also some elements that will appeal to fans of slashers of women-in-prison flicks.  Just don’t go into it expecting it to be camp.

Dir: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador

Starring Lilli Palmer, Cristina Galbó, John Moulder-Brown

Watched on Arrow Films blu-ray