La Residencia 1969
aka The Boarding School aka The Finishing School
Directed by: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Starring: Lilli Palmer, Christina Galbó, Maribel Martín
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
I said in my review of Al Filo Del Hacha i said that that Spain has an average track record with slasher movies and I still see no evidence to dispute that fact. However when it comes to the Spanish Giallo, I have a completely different opinion. Whilst we don’t boast a catalogue to rival that of our Latin contemporaries over in Italy, La Residencia is a seminal picture, which Dario Argento himself called an inspirational piece of film-making.
There are numerous reasons as to why the film is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the classic ‘Sei Donne Per L’Assassino’ or other such genre giants. The lack of any significant promotion outside its country of origin certainly didn’t help and although it isn’t particularly gory, as opposed to some of the more notorious Giallos, most prints of that time excluded the stylish greenhouse killing. This is the same in principle as removing the clocks from Salvador Dali’s ‘La Persistencia de la Memoria’ and expecting it to still have the same artistic quality. I just couldn’t imagine the film without it. They also heavily edited out the subtle lesbian tone that is ripe in the full cut, which means that there are various incomplete copies floating around in different regions.
A young woman joins a French boarding school for problematic girls and almost immediately begins to feel uncomfortable with the sinister head-mistress and the aggressive dictation of the elder students. At first it seems that the girls are running away one by one during the night in order to escape the disciplinarian modus operandi of the sinister staff, but soon it becomes apparent that the girls are falling prey to a vicious killer.
Despite La Residencia being well over forty-years old, the film is a masterpiece of skilful direction and extreme suspense. Here, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador is not so much the director as he is an artist and he succeeds in rolling the viewer up in his optical illusion throughout the entire runtime. If his movie is an abstract painting, then the ‘greenhouse killing’ that I mentioned earlier is its focal point. It plays on the screen like a vivid nightmare and Waldo de los Río’s wonderful musical accompaniment achieves a cinematic portrait that has rarely been accomplished to such an exemplary level. Like all good artists, we get the impression that the final print had been viewed countless times by Serrador as he planned it in his mind prior to production and he must have been satisfied to have translated his vision onto the screen so successfully.
Accusations of exploitation are entirely unfounded as the movie never relies on gratuitous shock tactics. Despite an almost entirely female-populated cast there is no real nudity on display and the film is not misogynistic at all. In fact it is quite the opposite as the female characters have the more dominant personalities of the script. The performances are superb from a mixed European cast of stars and Christina Galbó Sánchez’s portrayal is both convincing and highly emotional.
Another plus point is how the film chews up the rule-book and throws it straight out of the window to achieve a totally non-stereotypical synopsis. The revelation of the killer’s identity is hardly shocking, but the motive clearly is and like the more modern films of Almodovar, La Residencia doesn’t escape your mind after the credits have rolled. Almost half a decade after, this conclusion feels somewhat old-hat, especially as it has been repeated many times throughout the Giallo and slasher genres of later years. If you keep in mind that this was released way back in 1969, it proves that the film was somewhat ahead of its time.
Gore hounds may find the long excursions into character development rather disappointing and it’s true that the maniac killer is not the key point in the plot for the entire ninety-nine minutes. With that said, when he does strike, the slaughters are excellently conveyed and the film’s approachable characters and Samson-like-in-strength performances make this something of a cinematic treat. It’s nice to see a movie where every shot has been painstakingly planned to perfection and the net-result is a visual masterpiece that excels from start to finish.
La Residencia was the first Spanish movie to be shot in English and it benefits from a strong and intelligent script. It has certainly improved with age and initial Spanish reviews upon its launch were mixed at best. It’s undeniable now that this is an artistic and wholly recommended slice of cinema memorabilia and it deserves a higher seeding amongst the Giallo elite. It left its mark on horror through the countless features it inspired, which include the excellent ‘Suspiria’ and Juan Piquor’s ‘Mil Gritos Tiene la Noche‘ or Pieces as English speakers call it.
Final Girl √√√√√