Amazon’s Spanish horror series The Boarding School: Las Cumbres, a reboot of the early-2000s Spanish show of the same name, takes place in an isolated Catholic boarding school for wayward teenagers, where the teachers’ discipline is severe and the students dream of escape. The eerie stone building on a cliff, surrounded by a swath of dark forest, already makes for a creepy Gothic atmosphere. (Nothing says Gothic romance like an ominous building that’s impossible to leave.) And that’s without the mysterious figure in a plague mask who kidnaps a student at the end of the first episode.
But while the totalitarian boarding school, the whispers about cults, the plague doctors in creepy masks, and the gruesome discoveries do a good job of maintaining the tense, tight atmosphere, the show ultimately juggles too many characters and extra plot points that push the focus away from what makes it compelling.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for The Boarding School: Las Cumbres.]
In the first episode, charismatic Manuel (Carlos Alcaide), his rebellious girlfriend Amaia (Asia Ortego), their more mild-mannered friend Paul (Albert Salazar), and Paul’s responsible and hopeful sister Adele (Daniela Rubio) plot an escape from the prison-like school. But Adele backs out of the escape attempt at the last minute and Paul goes with her, leaving Amaia and Manuel running through the forest, freedom close at hand. After Manuel trips and falls, that spooky plague doctor swoops in and carries his limp body away into the woods, while Amaia looks on in horror.
It’s incredibly foreboding, but the next episode drags the fallout along, putting too much emphasis on the overly punitive school and not enough on the frightening situation. The uneven distribution of boarding-school drama and horror elements undermines any sense of a driving plot. The school staff’s severe punishments — throwing students in dungeon-like detention rooms for the night, or shaving the heads of students caught with phones — do a good job, initially, of creating tension. After a certain point of back-talking students getting reprimanding in overblown ways, though, the point is clear. The cycle of teenagers rebelling, getting caught by stern teachers, and thrown into cruel punishments ends up detracting from the compelling elements. It doesn’t help that the show just has so many characters, and not all of them are dealing with the same stakes.
The series’ horror and mystery is intriguing, though it manifests better in some characters than others. Amnesic student Inés (Claudia Riera), for instance, draws dark, cryptic images in her sketchbook and wanders around seeing shadows and figures just out of her peripheral vision. But monk Elias (Alberto Amarilla) and science teacher Elvira (Mina El Hammani), who make compassionate pleas to the higher-ups to go easier on the students — and also make horny eyes at each other — seem out of place. Paul and Amaia, meanwhile, want to find out more about Manuel’s mysterious disappearance. Certainly their futile attempts to contact the outside world add to the despair, but then Amaia throws a crazy party in a basement full of drinking, hookups, and only a little bit of exploring creepy dark crypts. Sure, there might be a murdering cult on the loose, but let’s have a threesome in a bathroom stall, why not?
All the elements of an intriguing horror-filled mystery are present in this series. But The Boarding School: Las Cumbres is plagued (ha) by its unevenness. At its best, the totalitarian boarding school adds to the tension. There’s a sense that the adults know more than they let on about something darker living within the stone walls of the school. But when the attention shifts to relationship drama, sex, and bullying, and emphasizes more of the same horrible teacher behavior, that scare factor gets neutered, making it feel more like a teen drama instead of the chilling horror series it teases.
The Boarding School: Las Cumbres is streaming on Amazon.