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A neatly-realized Gothic thriller in a very interesting setting, The House with Laughing Windows is an excellent Italian horror movie that goes against the 70s slasher-giallo trend. Director Pupi Avati composes a slow but riveting story that generates a lot of suspense, and pays off with some twists that are far more effective than exploitative gore. What we get instead is an intelligent terror film with a bonafide undercurrent of unease.
Savant sampled a few Argento and Fulci films a couple of years back and through them lost most of his curiosity for the Italian giallos and gore films of the 70s and 80s. Some were efficient enough, but beautiful camerawork and clever recreations of extreme mutilation did not in themselves have sufficient appeal. Besides, the subgenre, no matter how writers in Video Watchdog champion it, always seems to spiral down to the cannibal/zombie nadir of titles I don't even want to try. 1
The House with Laughing Windows is an intriguing puzzle that announces early on that it is not one of these exploitative pictures. The likeable young hero does not come on to the young girl on the ferryboat, and when he sleeps with another woman, it's not a titilating scene mandated by the grindhouse market. From the disturbing titles, we know that something nasty is afoot, but it's hard to tell which of the excellently-sketched townspeople might be sinister conspirators.
Most are more than a little weird. The restaurateur's dotty wife has a collection of macabre art by the same twisted artist who did the painting in the church. One of these is of a naked woman, but with the male artist's face. Stefano's buddy, who recommended him for the job, whispers strange warnings, but he may still be suffering from the effects of a nervous breakdown. The priest offers a little too readily the history of the church, including its wartime use by the German SS. The girl on the ferryboat, Francesca, seeks out the relatively passive Stefano for companionship, leading to suspicion there as well. Add to that the midget businessman who hired him, the priest's mentally-defective helper, and an alcoholic chauffeur, and Stefano is in the middle of a very insecure situation.
Director Pupi Avati lets his camera linger on scenes just long enough for us to find possible malice in them. When Stefano uncovers an old German wire-recorder with what may be the mad artist's fevered voice chanting a litany about blood and color, it might as well be a ghost-voice from the older Gothic tradition. Stefano has doubts about everything: Is the old woman upstairs really bedridden? Is the church helper as harmless as he looks? Why was he put out of his hotel room? Why does the chauffeur volunteer information about murders and pits full of the victims? Who ruins the painting after he's restored it? There are so many unanswered questions, even one character's announcement that he's cleared the marshes of eels is suspicious, especially when the priest hooks one later in the movie.
The House with Laughing Windows is almost free of standard Gothic stumblings. Stefano doesn't question the hotel lady who passes on the threatening phone calls. He doesn't guard evidence, or protect himself and Francesca well enough. But these standard quibbles seem minor in a story that constantly threatens violence, while unfolding a very interesting mystery.
As Stefano, popular actor Lino Capolicchio has a dignity and intelligence that many Giallo heroes lack - he's no pushover, nor is he easily spooked. Francesca Marciano is an interesting beauty who we care about the minute she walks onscreen. Besides her acting career (Pasqualino Settebellezze) she writes and directs as well.
Image's Euroshock Collection release of The House with Laughing Windows amounts to an American premiere, as the non-exploitative shocker was never released here. It did circulate on grimy greymarket videos, and I'm glad I didn't see it that way. This beautiful edition makes the show look brand-new. The visual textures of sunny days and dark nights essential to making the story work are retained intact, along with the original framing. Watching the show is like having a privileged seat at an original screening. The presentation is in the original Italian, with removable English subs. 2
The accompanying docu is an Italian item with the director and one of his actor-producers reminiscing on a balcony. Actor Capolicchio contributes a few comments as well. They talk about the tiny production (put in doubt by the long list of crewmembers on the IMDB) and explain their motives. Expressive director Avati has an even longer list of writing and directing credits, and is cited as an uncredited writer on Pasolini's notorious Salo. He comes off as a man with a pleasant sense of humor and an artistic attitude, especially when he explains why and how he left the ending of the film only semi-resolved.
A trailer and a gallery of lobby cards is included as well. Don't let the sick-looking bondage imagery of the cover art repel you - this one is quality goods, worth watching.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The House with Laughing Windows rates:
1. To those who might chide me for my unwillingness to sample
Zombie Holocaust et. al., my defense comes from the sage Steven Nielson: Open-mindedness
doesn't mean you have to be like a clamshell at the bottom of the ocean, wide open to everything
that drifts along with the current. Nature gave us brains to discriminate.
2. Mark Wickum offers some important info on the release:
In fairness, I'll also point out that the Image disc features a DTS track and a lobby card section that were not present on the Italian import. However, the Image disc does eliminate a restoration documentary that was featured on the Fox release, but confusingly enough lists the "retrospective documentary" as a "restoration documentary" on the disc's special features menu. Mark Wickum
Thanks Mark ... this isn't a case of the DVD Weenies, but
rather a problem of the Savantus Ignoramus variety. None of the above-mentioned flaws
showed up on my Sony player and Mitsubishi TV ... and I watched it carefully. Glenn