Thursday, March 17, 2011

Madness and Death Reside in “The House with Laughing Windows”

Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) is commissioned to restore a mural painting on a church’s wall in a remote Italian village. The painting is apparently a depiction of Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom, with knives penetrating his body. Stefano later sees an old friend, Antonio (Giulio Pizzirani), who wishes to tell him about Legnani, the artist who painted the mural. However, before the two men are able to speak privately, Antonio falls to his death. Stefano continues the restoration and begins a relationship with a teacher, Francesca (Francesca Marciano). Believing that the rather bizarre villagers are hiding something and that his friend may very well have been murdered, Stefano becomes obsessed with learning more about the deranged Legnani, the mysterious painting, and a place that Antonio had mentioned: a house with laughing windows.

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 v
ery 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 (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.


  1. Sark, I am alwlays looking for just such a movie as this in the horror genre -- it sounds wonderful, and I hope I like it as much as I think I will. I've mentioned before that I've never cultivated foreign films very often in my love of movies, but that has really changed of life. A lot of the reason for that is the Cafe. It has introduced me to several that I love, and I'm finding more all the time.

    Wonderful review that has given me a real desire to see this movie. As I mentioned in one of your earlier articles, you have a real knack for outlining a mystery's plot without giving away essential points or endings. Good job.

    Oh, and I love the title of this movie. Just that much makes me shiver a little bit!

  2. That was supposed to say "..but that has really changed of LATE", not life. Brain fade....

  3. Sark, I was unfamiliar with this film and only knew of Pupi because of THE STORY OF BOYS AND GIRLS (which sounds nothing like LAUGHING WINDOWS). The film is available on YouTube (for those with the patience to watch YouTube for an extended period). As you describe so well, the idyllic small town setting and the evocative music contribute mightily to the film's impact. Some aspects of the film reminded me a little of the WICKER MAN--another film with a slow build-up that generates an uneasy feeling that the outcome will not be a good one for the protagonist. As you wrote, LAUGHING WINDOWS is not as gory as, say, an Argento film from the same period. Still, the opening and closing scenes, as well as the background story, may not appeal to squeamish film fans. I love your last picture of the house of the title--it's a truly creepy image! This was a firest-rate review--yes, it's a in-depth analysis of LAUGHING WINDOWS. But more importantly, you made me aware of a film I'd never heard of, educated me about its cast and crew, and inspired me to watch it. That is pretty awesome!

  4. Sarko,
    After reading this very informative review count me in as wanting to see it!
    I love this genre and the movie sounds incredibly well written.

  5. I'm glad I came back to view the comments. Rick, I foundthe movie on Youtube and just watched it. I used poor judgment in doing so at 1:30 a.m. in the house alone. There were flaws in this movie, but it just didn't matter. I couldn't stop watching. As Sark described, the movie does creep up on you and it's atmosphere, not gore, that is so scary. I wish I could tell you the part of the ending that scared me the most, maybe not what you would think, but I can't spoil it for others.

    As for me, every light in the house is on. My neighbors (those who may be awake) probably think I'm having a party -- far from it. I'm just creeped out. The bedside lamp is staying on tonight, along with all the other lights. I realize it was my own decision to watch it, but I think you and Sark should be responsible for at least part of my electric bill this month!

  6. Sark, you must be watching all the films I haven't seen! Becky is right, the title is great. BTW, Avati should be glad he was uncredited for his work on Salo...beyond horrible, no one should ever take credit for that. It's horrible to say, but Pasolini should have been shot instead of ran over with his own car for what he did with Salo.

  7. Sark, this sounds like an very interesting film. I have never seen it. I love the way you describe this movie as, "shocking and profound, with a fine jolt to conclude the film." That makes me want to watch this movie on Youtube and I will!! Hey, if it scared Becky, I am sure I would love it too. Interesting and informative facts and well researched. I know I will enjoy seeing this movie!!

  8. This review made me want to see this film so badly that I got it from Netflix and watched it last night. It is as creepy and disturbing as Sark said it would be. Like Becky said, I couldn't stop watching it. My husband came into the room and asked me if the movie was good. I stopped the DVD and told him the first half of the movie. We watched the rest together, and he too become captivated by the story. I just wanted to yell to Stefano and Francesca to get out of that weird town right away. The ending is so disturbing and has a fantastic twist!! If you read this review and think this movie sounds good, you need to see it. Sark, your inspiring review got me interested and I enjoyed the movie!!