starring: Lino Capolicchio, Francesca Marciano, Gianni Cavina, Giulio Pizzirani, Vanna Busoni, Andrea Matteuzzi, Bob Tonelli, Pietro Brambilla, Ferdinando Orlandi, Ines Ciaschetti, Flavia Giorgio, Carla Astolfi, Tonino Corazzari, Pina Borrione, Arrigo Lucchini
"My colours - they transcend me into darkness."
- the voice of the 'painter of agonies'
Slash with panache?:
They call this Pupi Avati's horror masterpiece. I can more than see why.
Avati's horror films are rare beasts indeed and it is a wonder, and a pity, that he isn't better known outside of his native Italy. THE HOUSE WITH THE WINDOWS THAT LAUGHED is a nerve jangling essay in dread- neither a giallo nor a gothic ghost story, it borrows from both, but stands, with the director's other genre films, as something unique- something to be treasured (and something to be feared).
The film starts with a collage of bloody flesh and flashing blades as a man, hung from the ceiling by his bound hands, is circled by two figures in white robes who lash out at him with knives. His screams masked by a hissed monologue- "God. Oh God. My colours will paint death clearly…"
Italy, the 1950's- a young art restorer, Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) (fine as the wide eyed innocent), arrives by boat at a small rural Italian town, where he's met by the Mayor, a midget called Solmi (Bob Tonelli), and his chauffeur, Coppala (Gianni Cavina). He has been employed to restore and finish a fresco of the murder of Saint Sebastian housed at the local church which had not been finished due to the death of the artist who had been working on it- Legani; who Solmi describes strangely as being a good painter, but who suffered from "…a dark soul".
The local priest tells Stefano that the church has been destroyed then rebuilt six times over the ages, and then shows him the fresco he is to work on- a disturbingly graphic depiction of the death of the Saint, who is flanked by two assassins that seem to be enjoying their murderous work.
Stefano meets with an old friend, Antonio (Giulio Pizzirani), who tells him he has a disturbing story to tell, but seems reluctant to do so in public. When he does meet with him again Antonio tells him he wants to take him to see a strange place, "…a house with odd windows", but before he is able to he is called away. Later, in the village, Stefano sees Antonio fall from a balcony to his death. He glimpses the shadow of a figure through the window from where Antonio fell, but is unable to convince the police that there has been any foul play.
He finds himself plagued by threatening, hissed phonecalls telling him to leave the fresco alone and, after he takes one in the lobby of the hotel he is staying at, he is told that his room has been rented to another, regular customer (although he later finds out that this isn't the case at all). Alternative accommodation is suggested by the priest and he is taken out to an isolated and dilapidated mansion by Lidio (Pietro Brambilla), the village idiot who helps out at the church. There he is introduced to a bedridden old woman who lives there and, it seems, is glad of his company, "…the silence" she tells him "is unbearable." However, Stefano soon discovers that the house is all but silent. He hears muffled and indistinguishable noises at night from deep within the walls, but, in the morning, the old woman swears she heard nothing and that they are alone.
One night Stefano stumbles across a large room at the top of some stairs where he discovers a tape recorder on which is the voice of the man heard at the beginning of the film. Frightened, he seeks solace in the arms of the middle-aged school teacher with whom he had a brief fling with when he arrived in the village, only to find that she has gone and has been replaced by a pretty young woman, Francesca (Francesca Marciano). He convinces her to come and stay at the house with him.
Stefano becomes more and more obsessed by the dead painter, the voice on the tape and the strange figures in the fresco. He discovers, as he delves deeper, that Legani was known as 'The painter of agonies', because, "He liked to paint people who were dying." He also discovers that the artist, who is in fact only presumed dead, lived with two spinster sisters who apparently controlled his every move- and who, it seems, few are willing to discuss in any great detail. He also discovers the house where they lived together, which is now derelict bar from paintings on the outer walls depicting laughing faces where windows should be…
What is perhaps most amazing about Avati's film is the way that dread builds up to an almost unbearable level without the viewer being acutely aware of it. Testament to this is the fact that I almost jumped out of my skin when something burst from the shadows, whereas I may have not even blinked in a lesser film that threw in moments like that at random.
The film moves at a funereal pace but is never boring. I was on tenterhooks throughout; I know it sounds silly but I wonder if I held my breath for the whole movie? It certainly felt like I did. There was the sense that there was perhaps something truly perverse under the thin veneer of normality of the world these characters inhabited. Almost every shot seemed imbued with dread. That the night (especially the night) was teeming with terrible and arcane horrors lurking back just biding their time until they make themselves known. This is complimented by some extraordinary camera work, some of which seems to have been taken using a weak fish-eyed lens giving the impression that the unfolding story is being watched by some unseen eye. It is also more than complimented by a soundtrack where every noise seems exaggerated and could hold hidden meaning- where the rising caterwauling of an unseen cat foretells a sudden death, and where every creak and groan of a house could have monstrous significance, and where the night literally wheezes like an old woman asleep.
Like all best horror, be it in film or in print, when the source of the nightmare is revealed, when Avati shows us his dark hand, more questions arise- and more terrifying possibilities tantalisingly make themselves known. I won't spoil the ending, obviously, suffice to say it is shocking, violent and steeped in the strangest perversity of which the rest of the film has only allowed the briefest glimmer of.
Avati continued to mine the rich genre veins he started with in THE HOUSE WITH THE WINDOWS THAT LAUGHED with two of his other all too rare horror movies- ZEDER (1983) and L'ARCANO INCANTATORE (THE ARCANE ENCHANTER) (1996). Both of which used elements of this film with great success and are well worth seeking out (especially any of those who thought ill of ZEDER's repackaging under the US video title REVENGE OF THE DEAD- it wasn't Avati's fault that they packaged it as a full on zombie flick). THE HOUSE WITH THE WINDOWS THAT LAUGHED is rightly thought of as something of a classic in Italy, and it is a crying shame that when the films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci are gaining more and more recognition abroad with the advent of DVD that these uniquely cerebral horror films are not getting the same kind of respect. They deserve to be seen and appreciated by a wider audience- perhaps they will when Avati oversees the remake of this movie, in Italy, in the near future. On a final note, and sorry to be melodramatic, but I watched this frankly unsettling film in broad daylight- I can only suggest, should you get the chance to see it too, you do likewise (or kiss good-bye to a good night's sleep for some time to come!).
BODYCOUNT 6 female:1 / male:5
1: Male stabbed to death
2: Male pushed from balcony
3: Male sets himself on fire (presumed dead)
4: Female found hung by her wrists (method of death unseen)
5: Male found drowned
6: Male stabbed to death