In late 1800s, headmistress Sra. Fourneau (Lilli Palmer, The Boys From Brazil) runs an all-girls private school with an iron fist. She believes that strict discipline creates pupils with proper morals. But some of the students resent Fourneau’s harsh methods and a few of them run away from the school. Problem is that nothing has been heard from any of the escapees since they left the school.
Reaction & Thoughts:
The Finishing School (aka The House That Screamed and La Residencia), directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador (Who Can Kill a Child?), is an ambitious piece of Gothic, immensely more complex than anything Hammer and Amicus made during the 1960s and 1970s. Serrador, who also wrote the excellent screenplay, mixes together all sorts of crazy ideas with ease.
Ostensibly, The Finishing School is a slasher in a Victorian setting, but it also works as an intriguing erotic thriller. Serrador does a good job manipulating the audience. The film’s point-of-view keeps shifting ala Psycho (1960). As characters disappear, Serrador swiftly moves to a minor character and makes her the focus of the story. It’s a strange technique that succeeds in rattling the viewer.
Yes, The Finishing School is leisure paced and patience is required, but the tolerant is rewarded with more than a few fabulous set-pieces. It’s stunningly shot in washed-out colors by Manuel Berenguer (Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings). Slow-motion is used during some crucial moments to great effect. I also liked all the Freudian touches. As I said before, sex is an important part of the story. The constant allusions to repressed sexuality, and the obvious homoerotic symbols, broaden the scope of the movie.
All the young actors are good, but the film belongs to the great Lilli Palmer. She manages to keep her character undefined. You never know what she’s up to, but the headmistress is not a meaningless red-herring. The intense climax justifies Palmer’s cagey characterization.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Finishing School is a little gem for sure. It’s a terrific mystery film in the vein of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. With Mary Maude (Crucible of Terror), John Moulder-Brown (Room at the Top), Tomás Blanco (Agent 077: From the Orient with Fury) and Cristina Galbó (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie). Color, 99 minutes, Rated R.