La casa dalle finestre che ridono AKA The House with Laughing Windows (1976)
Directed by: Pupi Avati
Starring: Lino Capolicchio, Francesca Marciano, Gianni Cavina, Giulio Pizzirani, Bob Tonelli, Vanna Busoni, Pietro Brambilla, Ferdinando Orlandi, Andrea Matteuzzi, Ines Ciaschetti, Pina Borione, Flavia Giorgi, Tonino Corazzari
(out of 4)
Giallo, the genre of Italian horror involving extended murder sequences, sex, madness, and mystery (as we have come to understand the definition), stems from the series of cheap paperback novels with trademark yellow covers. The rise of this type of film (started by people like Mario Bava and Dario Argento) gained steam in the mid-70s. La casa dalle finestre che ridono, also known as The House With Laughing Windows, came out in 1976 and is considered a giallo in many circles, but I’m not exactly sure why – there aren’t many extended murder sequences at all and the movie itself is restrained in its depiction of general sleaziness. However, it’s a nice slice of atmospheric Italian horror – you can find better gialli but they won’t be as moody and Gothic. The movie is filled with long stretches of character interaction, detective work, and romance, although the one theme that suggests giallo roots is that of obsession and madness. In addition, there is the familiar theme involving the sexual deviancy of the killer (intimacy issue and gender confusion, natch), but it isn’t touched upon too much as the nature of the psychosis is a vital clue to the killer’s identity (well, one of them, anyway). Helping the film along is a good musical score and an interesting setting in the Po Valley (changing the usual location of this sort of story from the city to the countryside). Finally, we have a strong emotional link established between the violence that occurs in the film and its art centerpiece – in this case a painting of a saint being stabbed to death; the actual house of the title – an abandoned structure in the middle of nowhere with giant lips and teeth painted over all the windows and shutters – almost seems inconsequential.
The plot: Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) travels to a remote Italian community to restore a recently discovered fresco painting in the local church. The painting is a depiction of the execution of St. Sebastian, created by a strange local figure named Legnani (Tonino Corazzari making brief appearances), who is referred to by the village’s inhabitants as the “painter of agony” because he only liked to paint images of people in their death throes. After receiving threatening phone calls and getting kicked out of the local hotel (the superstitious owner doesn’t want the trouble) Stefano moves into a rather unsettling house owned by an bedridden elderly woman who lives upstairs. His friend Antonio (Giulio Pizzirani) warns him of strange goings on in the local community, talking about a “house with laughing windows”, but before he can elaborate, somebody throws him off a balcony. While courting the local schoolteacher (a very adorable Francesca Marciano), Stefano discovers a bizarre tape recording of painter Legnani going into a mad tirade concerning death, blood, colors, and “purity.” It seems that Legnani and his two sisters visited Brazil a long time ago and brought back with them a frightening religion – one that is still being practiced long after Legnani’s supposed suicide by self-immolation. Could his sisters still be around?
That director Pupi Avati would give a central role in his plot to a painting of St. Sebastian – a saint who was shot with arrows but didn’t die – is some kind of masterstroke when it is related to the resurrection of murders that were also thought to have ended long ago (there may be a metaphor for fascism in there too – we’ll get to that in a minute). Like in Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, Avati reveals a small town full of secrets and superstition. House With Laughing Windows is deliberately paced – a methodical (and a bit slow) middle section composed of a mystery, book-ended by two rather frightening and disturbing sequences of violence and madness. In the midst of this, it chooses to spend time on a love story between main characters Stefano and Francesca, which cranks up romantic elements and downplays the sex, (and it’s established that Stefano isn’t above sleeping with girls at first encounters). The love scenes in the picture are exercises in modesty; in one of them, Francesca dutifully undresses underneath the bed sheets. She’ll eventually get scared want to leave the town, but Stefano’s obsession with Legnani and the murders makes him forgetful of her needs and safety (as well as his), which is what makes their fate even more tragic.
The village, like the house of the title, has sunk into the dustbin of history (the priest mentions that the last people to live there were Nazis) and a kind of spiraling madness that pulls everybody down into it. Lying in the subtext is a commentary on post-war Italy, a country trying to put itself back together and escape the fascism of the past, and like the specter of guilt from the second world war that hangs over everything, the village has secrets nobody wants to acknowledge or do anything about. This idea of a collective shame is subtly depicted, but you can still feel its presence. The plot is a bit illogical (there is no good explanation why the villagers are keeping the secrets they are keeping, and the final reveal of the identity of one of the evil sisters is a bit hard to accept) but then again a movie like this succeeds not through realism but a sort-of dreamlike universe. The use of faded colors and sepia tones in certain sequences and interesting camera perspectives in others help keep the movie framed in a kind of surreal, non-reality. I shouldn’t understate Amedeo Tommasi’s eerie soundtrack either. Given the slow pacing, somber tone, and isolated locale, I don’t think this film would be out of place in a showing next to Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, and Don’t Torture a Duckling. It might test the less patient among us who have gotten used to fast moving plots and editing, but like the ominous painting in the film, it works because it provokes an emotional response. Good art is like that.
Image Entertainment releases The House With Laughing Windows on DVD for its Euroshock Collection. It features a trailer, retrospective documentary (including interviews with director Avati and star Capolicchio, among others), a lobby card gallery, and filmographies.