When I was selecting the movies to highlight in my book (the physical version is a year old this Friday! Happy birthday, book!), I tried to avoid including more than one from the same filmmaker. Just as I largely avoided selecting multiple entries from the same franchise, I wanted to make sure I was giving as much of a variety as possible, so when I was paring down my selections (I had too many on my first pass) I chucked out a number of them for no other reason than the fact that their respective director had a different movie elsewhere. But in the case of Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, I actually managed to include his entire feature film output - because he only made two of them, as far as I can tell. In a career that spanned over forty years, he directed a number of television projects, but (unless the IMDb has made a mistake) only went theatrical for his evil children opus Who Can Kill A Child? and the proto-slasher The House That Screamed. As both are essential (yet relatively obscure) entries for their respective sub-genres, I had no qualms about breaking my "rule" to give each of them their due.
As a slasher aficionado, I've always been fascinated by how this particular brand of horror developed over the years, as you can trace it back to Psycho and Peeping Tom even though neither of those films involve the sort of things that are fairly standard in the slasher film as we know it, such as a group of friends, a party or event of some kind (or a location) that the victims have gathered for, etc. It took almost twenty years after those two films to get to the formula distilled down to the science that would inform nearly all that came along after, and the major contributors are often given their due. Black Christmas and Mario Bava's Bay of Blood are usually the ones cited by know-it-alls when they want to argue with someone saying Halloween was the first slasher, but Serrador's The House That Screamed (aka La residencia, and released internationally as The Boarding School) actually preceded both of them.
Yet, for some reason, I don't hear it brought up in those conversations all that often; I'm not even sure if I had ever even heard of it prior to watching it via a Mill Creek budget set in 2011, when I threw it on figuring it would be another one of the set's terribly transferred B-movies that I'd struggle to come up with anything to say about it the next day when I wrote the review. But the transfer was actually fairly decent by their standards (it was even letterboxed!), and even better - the movie gave me plenty to say, as I had no idea how instrumental it was in the formation of my beloved body count movies. The plot (which also perhaps inspired Suspiria) involved a young girl (Cristina Galbó from What Have You Done To Solange?) arriving at a strange boarding school run by Ms. Fourneau, a very strict woman who doesn't seem too concerned about how a number of girls have disappeared in the past few months. They are assumed to have run away due to the rules and possible abuse at the hands of Irene, the sort of right hand to Fourneau, but since this is a horror movie we know that things must be far more sinister than that. An on-screen murder confirms our suspicions, and then we must try to guess who the killer is!
To be fair, an earlier horror film was obviously a huge influence on this one, and just saying the name of it would likely spoil the mystery for anyone who didn't already figure it out, but the devil's in the details, and it's really only in the moment of that reveal that you'll see similarities between the two films. Otherwise, as I mentioned, it feels more like a precursor to Suspiria (and even Black Christmas, with the protagonists assuming the missing girls merely left without saying goodbye), albeit with a mystery killer as opposed to a coven of witches. One could say that this merely makes it a giallo, but given the fact that it's a Spanish film (shot in English) and that the death scenes are not that elaborate, it never quite feels like something from early Argento or Fulci. There also isn't much of an investigation element; no police are ever involved (again, no one thinks there's foul play, just girls running away because Fourneau is such a tyrant), nor is the killer's motive all that complicated. Hell, it's not even clearly a horror/thriller for a while, as it unfolds more like a coming-of-age drama about a troubled young woman trying to adjust to a new environment.
Instead, it actually feels more like a woman in prison movie at times. Both Fourneau and Irene (played by Mary Maude, who appeared in another book selection - 1978's Terror) give unsettling long looks at their charges (including one in a shower scene) in between scenes of torturing them, though there isn't any physical violence. No, it's more of the psychological form of bullying, like when Irene and a couple of her cronies confront Galbó about her mother (a prostitute) and force her to dance like she does, while screaming in her face - it's like the locker room scene from Carrie, but, you know, seven years earlier. As for Ms. Fourneau (Lilli Palmer), one can almost watch the movie as a tale of her own mental unraveling; when we first meet her she's ruling over a dictation class with an iron fist, taking no shit from some of her bored pupils, but near the end of the film we can see they're getting the better of her. Indeed, the film has a more ensemble-like feel than most others of its type; Galbo is our entry point into the school as she's the new student, but once she's settled in we spend just as much time away from her as Irene and some of the other girls take center stage for lengthy chunks of the film, and not just because it's their death scene, either - the on-screen body count is fairly low.
On that note I should stress that the film is a bit too slowly paced at times, and would encourage new viewers to start with the shorter cut if you pick up the Blu-ray, as most of the footage isn't anything you'll miss (and rarely involves the horror stuff, if you're worried - even in its uncut form it's not a gory film by any means). As I mentioned, it doesn't even feel like a horror movie at first, but that issue is exacerbated in the longer cut, and I'd hate for less patient viewers to give up before it gets good. If you love it, by all means go back and watch the longer one next time around, though be warned that the extended cut scenes aren't of the same quality (different source), and that includes the opening sequence, so don't be alarmed that your Blu-ray looks murky at first. But even that is an obvious step up from the Mill Creek transfer, which is the best we had until Scream Factory came to the rescue, in the US anyway. I didn't even have a copy when I put my book together, as I had donated my Mill Creek packs when I finished the site, knowing I didn't need them anymore and figured someone else could give them a good home.
So now I just need Who Can Kill A Child?, which came out on DVD from Dark Sky a few years back but as of yet there is no Blu-ray version*. For a guy who only made two movies, I love that Serrador knew exactly how to attract my attention, as evil child movies are second only to slashers when it comes to my favorite kinds of horror movies. And Who Can Kill... is perhaps one of the all time best of this particular sub-genre, because not only does it deliver plenty of what we came for (children murdering adults), it's the rare entry where the adults... well, they fight back. Now, I don't mean they push a few of the kids down as they run away, or let one fall to their death like the end of The Good Son - no, I mean that at one point our hero takes a machine gun to a bunch of them who are blocking his path. The movie came out the same year as Assault on Precinct 13, which continues to shock people with its single gunshot killing of a child, so I can't imagine how the outrage squad will react to seeing a half dozen or so being mowed down (squibs and all!) by the hero of the film. Granted, they're evil and he's acting in self-defense, but it's still rather hard to believe anyone could get away with filming such a thing.
Like House, this one doesn't exactly hit the ground running, but it's also an overall tighter film that won't have you doubting that it's a horror film at all. A man and his pregnant wife arrive on an island for a last vacation before she gives birth to their child, and it's not long before they realize something is amiss. There are few adults around, it's eerily quiet, and every kid they encounter is creepy as all hell. Before long they learn that the children are wiping out every adult on the island - they're not exempt on account of being visitors - and it becomes a very satisfying cat and mouse game as they try to escape. As with his earlier film, the plot doesn't get much more complicated than what has been described, which along with the subject matter made it an unlikely candidate for a remake, but alas, someone named Makinov did just that in 2011, with a shot-for-shot redux titled Come Out And Play. Any differences were negligible and inconsequential, so apart from merely looking more modern, there's a pointlessness to the film that I've rarely encountered in the horror genre (even Van Sant's Psycho, bad as it was, at least had an experimental element to it). It's well made enough, but ultimately the only nice thing I can say about it is that at least they changed the title, so I never have to worry about recommending "Who Can Kill A Child?" to someone and finding out they accidentally spent money on the remake.
Serrador didn't abandon the horror genre after these two films, but he made television his home for the next 30 years until retiring after Blame, which was released on the "Six Films To Keep You Awake" set (and, admittedly, was one of the weaker entries in that otherwise worthwhile collection), making the anthology episodes and telepics hard to track down these days. As for why he never made any other features (horror or not), I have no idea, but hopefully someone can nab him for an interview (or, even better, double feature screening) so this would-be master can tell us why we weren't blessed with more of his work. Until then, we can just enjoy the two we have and take solace knowing that he never got to disappoint us with lackluster followups. And given their relative obscurity, it's possible a number of you haven't seen one or even either of them, so I encourage you to track both of them down and join me in lamenting that there isn't a third.
*With 4K now in the market and physical sales declining, the odds of older films coming to the "dated" Blu-ray format keep decreasing, so let's start pestering them!