Zombos Says: Very Good
This review was written for the upcoming Unsung Horrors, an anthology of horror movies you should watch, written by the fiends at We Belong Dead magazine. The book should be available at the end of this month.
The House with Laughing Windows (La casa dale finestre che ridono) is a neglected giallo.
Directed by Pupi Avati with music composed by Amedeo Tommasi, and a screenplay by Avati, Gianni Cavina, Antonio Avati, and Maurizio Costanzo, you would be hard pressed to find much written about this slowly building suspense movie, shot in Lido degli Scacchi, in the Ferrara province of the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy. Yet, with its mounting dread, a longstanding mystery in a way-too-quiet town where tourists are never seen, and an undercurrent of old evils that may still be walking around, there should be more attention paid to this little gem of terror that builds to a deliberately arguable climax.
The opening credits hint at the madness and horror that have transpired in the town where Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) arrives by ferry. He is greeted by the short Mayor Solmi (Bob Tonelli) and the taller Coppola (Gianni Cavina), providing an odd contrast as the two wait near a red car for his ferry to dock. He has come to restore a fresco in the local church, a painting depicting the martyring of St. Sebastian, at the request of a very nervous friend who is conducting water tests for the mayor.
With a budget that needed to stay lean, Avati uses his camera wisely. There are no flourishy or overtly stylized frames, but three instances, each involving Stefano, are worth noting. Two involve seeing Stefano through an open door, with him standing in the light of the room, but darkness outside that room. This impresses by implying he is surrounded by the unknown and the unseen, a strong foreshadowing element created by his position within the room, the open doorway, and the darkness leading to the camera watching him from a distance.
The third instance is either an aberration of the camera lens or a brilliant toss-away, which, either way, comes at the right moment in the movie to show the uneasiness slowly mounting in Stefano, and the shaky hold he has on the unknown and unseen that is closing in around him. As he slowly walks up a narrow stairway, the camera appears to remain immobile as the walls jiggle around Stefano’s ascent. Perhaps a camera anomaly due to the need for a handheld camera in such a tight space, or maybe it is an artifact from duping the film to DVD. A discussion on IMDb is not conclusive. You will need to decide for yourself. However it happened, it still leaves a strong impression.
The stairway leads Stefano to a large, mostly empty room, where Legnani, the painter who committed suicide, who tortured and murdered local villagers in the pursuit of his madness, mixed his palette with paints and blood. The painter was aided by his two sisters, who shared in and inflamed his insanity. All this ties to the fresco in the church that Stefano is restoring, and as he slowly uncovers more and more of the painting, he begins to delve deeper into the life and death of Legnani and the secret of the house with laughing windows. The priest in the church is non-committal: he can take or leave the restoration. But why? The assistant to the priest is an oddball who does nasty things and is allowed to. But why? Stefano’s nervous friend, who involved him in the restoration, is desperate to tell him something important about the painting, but will he be able to since no one else wants Stefano to know?
Sound and silence help build the mystery and the sense of foreboding throughout the movie. An old wire recorder comes to life as power fuses are blown. The recording is Legnani’s voice describing his ecstasy experienced through the agony of others and his visions from tortured madness. The effect is as chilling and telling as the recordings heard in The Exorcist and The Evil Dead. Threatening phone calls are made to Stefano, warning him to give up and get out; deep-voiced, throaty calls that mean business. And Tommasi’s score provides the convincing atmosphere of danger and oppressiveness, while the silence of townspeople and the quiet countryside establishes a sense of collusion and indifference.
Coppola, bothered by his conscience, decides to help Stefano. How long both of them will live to find the answers is questionable. While the body count is low and people are not murdered in the usual graphic giallo style, House with the Laughing Windows compensates and goes one better, by relying on the slow burn, the unsettling painter of agony’s legacy, and a twisted ending that leaves you with hope or despair, depending on how you want to paint this picture.
This article originally appeared at From Zombos’ Closet.
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