Giallo Horror Mystery Drama
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The House With Laughing Windows (1976)
28th Mar 09
Stefano, a painter, arrives in a rural Italian village to begin work on the restoration of a fresco in the local church. The unfinished work, which depicts the murder of Saint Sebastian, is by local artist Legnani - a “dark soul” known to the local townsfolk as a “painter of agony” - who disappeared years ago.
Almost immediately after his arrival, strange things begin to happen to Stefano. He receives a phone call at his hotel with a spooky voice telling him “don’t touch the painting”. And when his friend Antonio tells him the work has “a horrible story” behind it and falls to his death from a rooftop building, Stefano attempts to uncover the truth behind the painter’s obsession with death, and the mystery of the curious house with the “windows that laugh.”
When Pupi Avati’s little-seen rural giallo was finally released in 2002 in a spiffy 25th anniversary DVD edition such was its reputation that many, upon finally seeing the film, expressed some disappointment. It was perhaps inevitable, after all HWLW is largely atypical of what fans have come to expect from the golden age of Italian horror cinema. Avati’s film isn’t the kind of giddy phantasmagoria proffered by peak period Argento, it’s a million miles from the gaudy pulp excesses of Fulci and contains none of the baroque stylings of Mario Bava. Avati is not a horror director - although he certainly has an interest in the supernatural, the occult and the downright weird, as this and later works Zeder and The Arcane Encounter reveal. Regardless, the fact is that after being promised a lost Italian genre classic, many aficionados felt short changed. Feverish debates raged around horror circles and on forums, with some dissatisfied viewers questioning Avati’s place in the Italian genre pantheon.
Well for my money HWLW is one of the all time greats - for precisely the reasons so many found it disappointing or underwhelming. Agreed, it is unrepresentative in many ways. Aside from some questionable character development, it unfolds in fairly believable fashion, in stark contrast to the wilful piss-taking absurdity of 99% of the genre. Also, the heady mix of sex and violence we love the Italians for - for some very much the genre’s very modus operandi - is largely absent.
That said the film kicks off with one of the grisliest title sequences you’re likely to see - a truly hideous, grainy image of a male torso being repeatedly stabbed with a knife. A soundtrack of really creepy organ music, punctuated by screams, builds ominously - before giving way to a distorted crackly man’s voice; “My colours they run hot in my veins…. they transcend me into darkness… they erase everything else. My colours will paint death clearly”.
After this grim little entrée, you would expect a truly grotesque, extreme gore flick to unfold right? Dead wrong. Instead, Avati shifts gear straightaway - the sinister drone giving way to a poignant, Morricone style melody, as a rural Italian landscape unfolds, and we are introduced to the hero of the piece - art expert and Richard Stillgoe look-alike Stefano (Lino Capolicchio, familiar to giallo buffs from Antonio Bido’s The Blood-Stained Shadow).
Fittingly for the lead in a 70s Italian horror flick, Stefano wears an inappropriately outsize raincoat (on a beautiful summer day no less!) and sports a truly horrific beard. He isn’t the kind of boho bozo normally associated with the genre, wandering around shagging models oblivious to the corpses piling up around him - although he does get his end away with the only two half decent looking chicks available in the town! As befits a restoration art expert, Stefano is a man for whom detail is important, which is frankly just as well. Greeted off the boat by a midget businessman called Solimi - who has contracted him for the work - and his pissed-up chauffeur Coppola, it becomes very apparent early on that our boy is going to need his wits about him.
From this moment on practically everyone Stefano meets in the village is either sinister, nuts or both: and they all have something to say about Legnani, the disturbed painter of the fresco. There’s the shifty pastor who thinks the painting is rubbish anyway and becomes irritable whenever the artist is mentioned; his retarded assistant, a grinning, gurning buffoon who spouts complete bollocks and introduces Stefano to the house itself (after he’s evicted from the local hotel for no good reason!); the mysterious veiled lady who wanders around permanently gathering flowers, and the local trattoria owner whose wife has a bunch of Legnani’s works - one of which portrays her nude with the artist’s face on it (!) Even Stefano’s best friend Antonio, who recommended him for the work, is a total flake who appears continually on the verge of a mental breakdown…
I realise that all of this makes HWLW sound exactly like a typical entry in the genre, but Avati's structural and visual approach gives the film a very different feel. Most giallo positively revel in illogicality – HWLW’s plotting is quite intricate and deliberate. The film is shot in a relatively naturalistic and low-key fashion, at times looking more like a film by Pasolini (apparently Avati worked as an uncredited writer on the notorious Salo).
Relying on moments of quiet sinister revelation, dwelling on seemingly normal scenes to maximise their sinister potential while eschewing grand guignol tactics, punctuation scares or throwaway gore moments, HWLW manages to sustain a mood of growing mistrust, paranoia and dread right the way up to the shattering, unexpected finale. In this respect it maybe has more in common with non Italian Euro horror films of the period like Don’t Look Now, or Polanski's The Tenant.
And while it’s not unheard of to set a giallo in the country (Fulci’s masterful Don’t Torture A Duckling springs to mind) this choice of locale further sets the film apart from the standard yellow pager. Avati makes the inhabitants of this small town - seemingly benign members of the community - seem like the weirdest bunch of people ever, without robbing them of their believability.
The rural idyll contrasts nicely with the slow burning sense of unease and the feeling that everybody in the village is hiding something. When the restaurant owner says to Stefano, jokingly “everybody knows everything here”, you believe him.
HWLW takes a lot of the creaky staples of the genre - sinister voices on phone lines, the discovery of an old tape recording, creepy old lady in the attic etc - and imbues them with a deadly seriousness. It’s a bold strategy but it works. It helps that the performances are for the most part spot on, with Capolicchio a particularly believable and likeable hero, an amusing eyeball-rolling turn from Giulio Pizzirani as twitchy best friend Alfredo and a nicely understated performance from Francesca Marciano (a writer and director in her won right) as the ominously quiet young woman with whom Stefano falls in love.
So why does this film divide the fan base? Well the sombre, austere approach will not be to everyone’s taste and the pacing has driven certain people I’ve watched this with up the wall. But the deliberate build up really pays off - as the films dénouement is one of the strongest in the genre. Traditionally one of the most problematic elements of the giallo, the ending here is an absolute jaw dropper, trust me.
I’m tempted to say the reason many felt disappointed is the film’s lack of extreme content. Aside from the opening and closing the film is gore-free and has possibly the tamest love scenes in any Italian genre film of that period, almost comical in their chasteness. When Stefano sleeps with the promiscuous teacher at the beginning, he appears to have literally done just that, cuddled up and snoozed alongside her, fully clothed. And his love scene with young Francesca is a golden moment of hilarity, as she takes forever to undress (under the covers no less!) This is unsurprising, since she’s wearing three different types of underwear including quite the biggest pair of knickers seen on film - a gigantic plump pair of granny pants. Trust me, the scene manages to break up the grim mood quite nicely (if unintentionally) and never fails to reduce fellow viewers to tears of laughter.
Apparently the director is on record as saying that he’s embarrassed by his horror work, although he seems fairly happy with HWLW on the documentary contained on the DVD. I havent seen much of Avati’s non-genre work so I don’t know how it compares but on the strength of this movie (and on the equally creepy and even far more unconventional Zeder) The only thing he should really apologise for is not having made more horror films…
Versions Also known as La Casa dalle finestre che ridono
After years in the wilderness the film is currently available on DVD in two versions– I’ve watched both and the print seemed identical. The Italian DVD was released by 20th Century Fox in 2002. It has a nice slip case and - naturally - carries the correct Italian title of La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono. The other is an IMAGE release from 2003 as part of their ‘Euroshock Collection'. Given the film’s history and age the transfer is remarkable. There are two featurettes (both are in Italian only on the Italian DVD, and only the longer one is included on the US DVD), and there is no trailer on the Italian disc.
Stop Press Now available in the UK from Nouveaux Pictures in a beautiful uncut anamorphic widescreen print. No extras on the UK disc though sadly.