Being the daughter of a print media editor has its downsides--I've inherited a marked impatience with slow storytelling. This is particularly challenging, since I have a dear, beloved, admired and respected friend who simply cannot tell a concise story. Try as he might to get to the frikkin' point in a timely fashion, I've come to believe his humors are balanced in such a way as to make him incapable of doing this. I simply resign myself to the fact that, when this friend gets to telling a story, I'd better take a seat and let him recount the tale his way, hoping that the payoff will be worth it. This is frequently the case, and that's why we remain friends.
I'll admit that there were several moments in the initial forty minutes (or maybe even hour) of the Spanish period gothic thriller "La Residencia" during which my mind wandered and I began to think that my time might be better spent elsewhere. This is a movie that takes its sweet time getting where it needs to be, but then makes a couple of astonishing plot turns that ultimately make the slow burn build-up entirely worthwhile. In that way, "La Residencia" is a lot like my dear, beloved, admired and respected friend--it's also a lot like him in that it enjoys seeing women in fancy dress put into compromising and sexualized situations, but that's a matter for his writing and not mine, I'm sure.
"La Residencia" is a very difficult movie to discuss without spoiling the viewing experience, so I'll do my best to keep to generalities. Hell, I know a few of you were sold by my mention of "period gothic thiller," so those folks might want to just stop here and track down a copy of this film now! It's all about mood and tone here, as is the case with the most effective gothic tales, trafficking as they do in distressed damsels, shadowy corridors, unspeakable secrets and deeply suppressed desires.
The all-girl boarding school of the title is either a powder keg, pressure cooker, simmering cauldron, or ticking time bomb of unrequited sexual tensions--feel free to pick your cliched description of choice. Enter Theresa, daughter of a single mother who is unable to afford her upkeep and sends her eighteen-year-old to live at an isolated French boarding school where she will be better cared for. As audience members, we're already on to the fact that this is one strict institution when an unfortunate student is sent to THE DISCIPLINE CHAMBER after having the chutzpath (that's Yiddish for "bad judgement," right...?) to disrupt dictation class. That's right--headmistress Madame Fourneau is one harsh bird, and she's not afraid to mete out a certain amount of Tough Love in order to keep her girls in line.
At this point, I know what you're thinking. All this talk of pent-up female desire, captivity, and DISCIPLINE sounds a whole heck of a lot like a Women In Prison film. In a very tangible way, "La Residencia" can be seen a gothic women in prison tale, with all of the metaphorical implications that might lie therein. There's the criticism of a repressive society, the exploration of the rotten core of the upper- and upper middle class, and the theme of innocence endangered in a landscape of decay and evil. It'd be remiss of us to forget that this is a Spanish production, and that country had some of the most restrictive censorship laws in Europe at the time this film was made. The "feel, don't show" emphasis of the film's structure works in its favor, creating a build-up of claustrophobic atmosphere as well as allowing for the kind of heavy-handed censor's cuts that would doubtless be required for a domestic release.
The cast is thoroughly superb and features familiar genre players Maribel Martin from "A Bell From Hell" and "Blood Spattered Bride" and John Moulder-Brown from "Ludwig" as well as "Vampire Circus." I appreciate the decision to keep histrionics to a minimum here--much as I appreciate a fine fit-pitching performance, the fact that this movie traffics in facial expressions, stolen glimpses, and unseen encounters makes it all the more sinister and adds a true horror to the film's final reveal.
To wrap things up--"La Residencia" is a period chiller of a movie that rewards one's patience handsomely. Take a few calming breaths, dim the lights, and seek out this movie--it's an offering in the finest "creepy old house" tradition that will not disappoint!