Pupi Avati’s The House with Laughing Windows (1976/La casa dalle finestre che ridono) is a methodical, shuddersome thriller permeated with an overwhelming sense of dread. One of the movie’s most notable qualities is its dreamlike imagery. The village is cluttered with strange people, as if they had just stepped out of a demented Fellini film. The further Stefano delves into Legnani’s life, the more surreal the entire affair becomes: people suddenly disappear and then reappear later with no explanation, flashbacks of Legnani are presented in blurry soft focus, Francesca has a refrigerator filled with snails (the fridge doesn’t even have shelves), and the village at night seems completely deserted. The story, however, is cemented by Stefano’s attempt at solving the mystery. It is what keeps the narrative linear and in motion.
Avati couples the creepy, hypnotic ambiance with more traditional elements of a suspense film. An unknown, raspy voice over the phone warns Stefano against exposing any secrets. A seemingly endless barrage of shadows and noises move about the house where Stefano is staying, and any investigation on the man’s part leads to empty rooms, offbeat strangers, and even greater mysteries. Stefano’s only real-life connection to the painter is an audio recording containing an incomprehensible and maniacal chant. Though some of the film’s most nerve-wracking moments include Stefano searching the house with no dialogue or music, Amedeo Tommasi’s score enhances the film, an appropriately simple piece of music with sharp piano notes that intensify the overall trepidation.
Avati’s greatest achievement with The House with Laughing Windows is the impact that he acquires with a minimalist approach. The bare-bones story and unassuming score easily pull along the viewers, yet are both augmented as Legnani’s life and the secrets of the village slowly come to light. There is very little nudity or blood in the film, but the movie is shocking and profound, with a strong jolt to conclude the film. Tension is derived through performances and an audience’s clear understanding (as suggested by Francesca) that Stefano’s journey will likely not end well. The very fact that Avati is not truly hiding anything is ultimately what makes the movie so disturbing.
Avati, born Giuseppe Avati, is a prolific screenwriter and director. Though he is a versatile filmmaker who has worked in many different genres, he is well known among horror fans for this film, as well as his 1983 Zeder, concerning a writer who uncovers a scientist’s study of an area where buried bodies come back to life. In addition to writing or co-writing the films that he has directed, Avati has co-written other directors’ work, such as Macabre (1980/aka Frozen Terror), the directorial debut of Lambero Bava, son of Italian horror maestro, Mario Bava, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), though he was uncredited.
The first draft of The House with Laughing Windows was written by the director and his brother, Antonio Avati, a number of years previous to the film’s release. The script was chosen when needing to make a film with a low budget, and the brothers finalized the screenplay with two additional writers, Gianni Cavina (who also stars in the film) and Maurizio Costanzo (a frequent Avati collaborator).
Actress Marciano has since become an author and screenwriter, co-writing, among other things, 2005’s Don’t Tell (aka La bestia nel cuore), which was the Italian selection for that year’s Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nomination. Eugene Walter, who appears in The House with the Laughing Windows as a priest, was an American but made appearances in a number of Italian films, including Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965). He also translated some of Fellini’s scripts into English and was an award-winning author of novels, short stories, poems and cookbooks.
Despite its title, there is nothing to laugh at in The House with Laughing Windows. In fact, it is devoid of humor, a film that will make some viewers wish for the protagonist, Stefano, to forget about the mystery and find somewhere to hide. The movie does include a superficial rendering of the title, but it is undoubtedly allegorical. Some stones are better left unturned. But there will always be a curious party, as well as a lurking evil, content in the knowledge that all it has to do is wait.