The British, almost Jamesian material is set in 19th-century France, yet this splendid study of gothic repression and women on the verge is Spanish all the way to its fingertips, with the stale air of Franco’s regime hanging in the sprawling boarding school’s every chamber and outside in every Cantabrian foothill. An old countryside labyrinth is the setting, the headmistress (Lilli Palmer) sets the tone of immaculately squelched hysteria, "marked" girls fill the classrooms with muffled desire and rebelliousness. Communal prayers in the bedroom and whippings in the tower, tea and biscuits and insects (cf. Bataille’s Histoire de l’oeil) for the newly arrived student (Cristina Galbó), the principal’s boy (John Moulder-Brown) crawling between walls when not being groomed into a cherubic Norman Bates. One fecund moment finds the camera cutting from the virginal Galbó poking holes for seeds in the garden to the groundskeeper staring at her through the greenhouse window; a few scenes later, the same man’s burly hands will activate the throbbing pipes for the girls’ shower room. With so many perforations (pricked fingers, sticks jammed into anthills) and evocative dollies within exacting widescreen compositions, the murders come with terrible inescapability and fluency -- Narciso Ibáñez Serrador forges luxuriously unsettling effects out of a series of lap dissolves as blood drips on flowers and a second-long freeze-frame of the blade held to a throat. "Healthy minds, healthy bodies," Palmer says, though her real maxim is the oppressor’s credo ("You made me do this"), stitched from one warped generation to the next. Argento’s Suspiria is an absolute analysis, the concluding frisson adduces a note of Poe to be appropriately degraded in Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces, a different Spanish fable. Cinematography by Manuel Berenguer. With Mary Maude, Maribel Martín, Cándida Losada, Pauline Challoner, Tomás Blanco, and Teresa Hurtado.
--- Fernando F. Croce