My Colors Are Hot Like Fresh Blood: An Appreciation of “The House with the Laughing Windows”
Ciao, bambini! I know I’ve been writing more about newer movies recently with my Hulu Horror Double Feature series, so I figured it was about time to return to the decade that spawned most of my favorite films, the funky fly 70s, and also delve a bit deeper into that rich vein of goodness that is the Italian giallo genre.
I’ve written about Italian movies before (Suspiria, The Psychic, House of Clocks), and I even wrote a short overview of the history of the giallo film, in which I happened to mention the movie I want to talk about today, which is right here with English subtitles, if you want to watch along:
1976’s The House with the Laughing Windows (aka La casa dalle finestre che ridono), aside from its completely rad title, is considered a classic of the genre, even though many of the more lurid, baroque elements present in the better-known giallo films of Dario Argento and others are notably absent. Directed by Pupi Avati, the movie actually bears some resemblance to Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, as well as the restrained but unsettling vibe of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In other words, it’s actually more of a low-key mystery than a straight horror film, and as such it might be a tad too ponderous for some, but it does feature a subtle sense of dread as a constant undercurrent, and the final few minutes are fantastic.
In brief, art expert Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) is summoned to a small village in rural Italy to restore a fresco of St. Sebastian on a wall of the town church. The rather macabre painting was done by a local artist named Legnani (Tonino Corazzari), who committed suicide two decades before and is known around town as the “painter of agony,” because he preferred to depict his subjects in terrible pain or in the final moments before their death. Stefano tries to get to work on the restoration, but to a man, every townsperson seems secretive and vaguely hostile, and someone keeps calling Stefano at his hotel, warning him against altering the fresco. The only friendly faces are Stefano’s longtime friend Antonio (Giulio Pizzirani), who mysteriously dies before he can tell Stefano what he knows about the painting, and a new schoolteacher, Francesca (Francesca Marciano), who arrived on the same ferry as Stefano did. Stefano and Francesca quickly become entangled, and their budding relationship constitutes a significant facet of the plot as it moves toward the discovery of the town’s secrets.
Despite its rather subdued narrative, The House with the Laughing Windows does boast many of the hallmarks of a stereotypical giallo: The protagonist is thrust into a mystery he becomes obsessed with solving, there are numerous red herrings which are never explained, there is a somewhat dreamlike logic at work surrounding certain plot points, and the heart of the mystery deals with madness and sexual deviance (though any actual sex in the movie is generally implied rather than shown). Additionally, the house with the laughing windows itself serves as something of a metaphor for the plot, signifying as it does a decay of happiness, a loss of innocence, a hole of insanity that sucks in everyone in the vicinity. More historically-astute reviewers than I have also noticed the film’s inferred references to shame about Italy’s fascism during the war; this isn’t really relevant to the conventions of the giallo, but I thought I’d mention it here, as the subtext does elevate the film above lesser examples of the genre.
Where the movie differs from better-known giallo films is in the absence of the trademark black-gloved killer, the unerotic nature of the murders (there is one rape preceding a murder, but it is not really shown, and the other murders are simply workmanlike and not fetishized), and the dearth of any particularly Grand Guignol moments like you’d see in many other typical gialli.
That said, the ending is fairly shocking and grotesque, especially since the rest of the movie is so slow-moving and understated. I’m not sure I’m completely on board with the final reveal of one of the troublemakers, and in light of the mystery’s resolution I’m not entirely certain why the townspeople behaved the way they did toward Stefano, but these are minor quibbles that contributed to the Polanski-esque feeling of paranoia that pervaded the whole enterprise, so I’m willing to forgive the inconsistencies. It really is a masterpiece of the genre, helped along immensely by its eerie, sepia-toned vistas and its steady ramping up of tension. A must-see for fans of gialli and atmospheric European horror.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.