Color, 1974, 89 mins. 42 secs.
Directed by Pedro L. Ramírez
Starring Dean Selmier, Sandra Mozarowsky, Norma Kastel, Carlos Mendy, Victoria Vera
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray) (US RA HD)
Near the end of the oppressive Franco era in Spain, films like Paul Naschy's bloody monster fests were finding welcome arms around the world while other homegrown efforts had a harder time reaching international audiences. One example is School of Death (El colegio de la muerte), a combination of hoary mad scientist tropes and abused schoolgirl shenanigans left over from The House That Screamed. Though it was released in 1974, this one feels like it could have easily come out ten years earlier with a quaint period vibe and gaudy color scheme that make it a real feast for the eyes. This may not be the most eventful horror movie in the world, but it has a cozy yet slightly perverse charm that would've made it perfect for late night TV airings years ago.
The mayhem starts right out of the gate as a helpless schoolgirl is strapped in by a deformed doctor who wants to get to work on her brain with a scalpel. As we soon find out, society in 1889 London has come up with a novel solution to helping lower class women get a leg up in the world: planting them in the Saint Elizabeth Refuge, where they can learn how to serve the upper class. Not surprisingly, it turns out the rich are totally corrupt and have their own wicked agenda, albeit one we don't understand fully until the twist ending (which, now that you know, may not be much of a twist). The more rebellious girls either get the wrong end of a whip or get sent off to places unknown in the middle of the night, which is exactly what happens to poor Sylvia (Monster Dog's Vera). The girl's best friend, Leonore (Night of the Seagulls' Mozarowsky), doesn't buy the story that Sylvia is off serving as a temporary serving girl and decides to do some sleuthing on the premises, where everyone is also agog over the frequently visiting Dr. Brown (The Blood Spattered Bride's Selmier). Spurred on by a glimpse of Sylvia riding in a carriage at night, she becomes determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. What is the secret agenda of the sadistic headmistress Miss Wilkins (Vengeance of the Zombies' Kastel), and where are these girls really going?
The answer to that latter question is the stuff of pure classic sleaze, though the handling of it is very restrained with the proceedings kept safe enough to stay within the area of a PG rating. What you do get though is atmosphere galore with lots of shuddery string music, flickering candles, terrorized schoolgirls in buttoned-up nightgowns, swirling fog, gratuitous fencing, and some fun plot turns including a neat detour into Edgar Allan Poe territory close to the end. This would be the final feature for director Pedro L. Ramírez, who worked a lot in Spanish TV after working his way up through the industry mostly in the '50s. Along with this film, he's probably most significant in genre circles for his quasi-giallo The Fish with the Eyes of Gold and a handful of comedic Euro westerns. His style here essentially amounts to mounting the camera down and shooting everything in medium shots, but luckily the production design is lavish enough to ensure that's more than enough here.
Released in the mid-'80s on VHS by Mogul in its English-dubbed version, School of Death has been very obscure after that until the 2022 Blu-ray release from Mondo Macabro. The new 4K scan from the camera negative is a real stunner, obviously left untouched for decades and looking so crisp and colorful it makes you wish all Euro horrors could be so pristine. Both the English dub and the superior original Spanish track are presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono and sound excellent with optional translated English subtitles provided. The sole extra is a new audio commentary by Kat Ellinger, who put this in context within the wider scope of Spanish horror (and comparable entitles like Hammer), other directors among Ramírez's countrymen like Jorge Grau and Jess Franco, the problem with approaching journeyman filmmakers, Selmier's completely insane background and connections to Andy Milligan, Mozarowsky's tragic fate not long after this production, and much more. As usual for the label, a limited red case edition was also released featuring a 20-page booklet with an essay by Ismael Fernandez, but the contents of the disc itself are identical.
Reviewed on March 15, 2022.