Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The House with Laughing Windows (1976)

Country: ITALY

La casa dalle finestre che ridono
House with the Windows That Laugh

Most directors of gialli spend their time so preoccupied with stylistic details that many of the films have an artificiality to them. It is quite difficult to become fully absorbed into the filmic world because the makers of gialli are continually foregrounding the means of its construction. However there are one or two notable exceptions and Pupi Avati’s 1976 gialli The House with Laughing Windows is one such exception. Avati’s movie is the polar opposite to the pretence and formal experimentation of Dario Argento and Mario Bava and manages to get under ones skin in a manner rare for this popular Italian cycle. All the normal devices that are utilised to distance an audience emotionally are almost entirely absent, which makes this an incredibly unsafe viewing experience. The viewing safety of the audience is also undermined by Avati’s determined disavowal of generic convention. There are no black gloved killers here, there are no major set piece murder sequences, and there is very little use of a subjective point of view shot. The filmmakers are instead concerned with the slow and subtle realisation of an unsettling atmosphere of repression and perversity.

This sense of dread begins instantly with a harrowing credits sequence showing a chained man being stabbed and tortured by two hooded figures. The purposefully blurred image, the sepia tones, and the screams that fill the soundtrack leave a trace of haunted disquiet. We are quickly introduced to the protagonist Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) an artist who has been employed by the mayor of a small town in rural Southern Italy to restore a badly damaged fresco depicting the torments of St. Sebastiano. The town itself is ailing, the principal means of profit are the hot thermal springs that once attracted thousands of tourists, but with such business now drying up the locals have little to do it but drink themselves into oblivion. A sense of tiredness and decay permeates every brick of this town, a heavy weight hangs over the populace, and strangers from the city are immediately greeted with mistrust and suspicion. Avati and his brother Antonio who co-wrote the screenplay are clearly taking their lead from Lucio Fulci’s 1972 gialli Don’t Torture a Duckling. But Avati’s film avoids any direct comment on the nature of Italian modernity by largely removing any reference to the outside world. The isolation of this community is continually emphasised as Avati seeks to explore the heavy cost of being enslaved to the past.

Lino Capolicchio as restorer Stefano

Although this film doesn’t conform to our expectations of its genre, it does feed into a general meta-narrative in the giallo which explores a dichotomy between art and death. The artist Legnani (Tonino Corazzari) is obsessed with capturing on canvas the precise moment of death. This is a preoccupation he shares in common with Mark Lewis from Peeping Tom (1960). Their methods of representation differ, but the implications for art are the same. Art becomes a sadistic debasement, a metaphysical device which justifies murder and torture. Legnani however is even more mixed up than Mark Lewis thanks to two domineering sisters with whom he has an incestuous relationship. The question of Legnani’s insanity becomes troubling by a series of flashbacks, clues, and evidence which suggest his madness comes about through a crisis of gender. In one disturbing scene we are shown the artist using his arm as a palette as he becomes his own model. This is no normal self portrait however because he gives himself breasts! His sisters too blur the lines of femininity and masculinity in a way that can only be described as horrifying. This attitude to gender acts as both a means to mask true identity and as an extremely effective shock finale.

The creepy house of the film's title

The house where this sick trio lived becomes a forceful symbol, an object of mockery that leers down at the bodies buried in its grounds. Likewise the church which houses the fresco becomes an equally disturbing metaphor for the cruel deception which tricks Stefano and seals his fate. The church at one time was a hideout for the Nazi’s, so it has a history of usage which offers a caustic comment on the hypocrisies of Catholicism. Because it is a church it is a much more effective space in which to conceal reality, and Stefano’s trust in this institution and those that minister it is very costly. The overall atmosphere of repression works extremely well because of the stifling heat of summer, and this becomes a film about that which is left unsaid. Much is communicated by the actors through body language and eye contact, and the performances, with the exception of Pietro Brambilla’s pervert Lidio are understated and effective. Few films abound with so many effective spatial metaphors; the church, the house with laughing windows, the decaying house Stefano stays in, the town itself. They all speak of decadence and decay, of a terrifying unwillingness to confront the past, an attitude which is brought to life perfectly at the end when Stefano desperately seeks help from a community that has no intention of accepting his findings.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Nice review, Shaun. This is one of my favourite giallo films. The atmosphere, the gorgeous cinematography - but most of all; the quiet. Such a palpable sense of quiet dread permeates proceedings it becomes stifling after a while. You made some really interesting points about the disturbing use of the church as a metaphor for the cruel deception which tricks Stefano and its connections to Nazism and hypocrisies of Catholicism. The fact that it is set in the early fifties, can also be seen as a pointed allegory addressing Italy's post-war struggles.
    I love the spatial awareness Avati exhibits too, the production design is flawless and it adds such a sense of eeriness to proceedings. Gender confusion seems to be a common thread in so many gialli; I forgot how important it is to this one. Time for a revisit me thinks! :o)

  2. Cheers James! Yes it is one of my favourites as well, and undoubtedly this came through in my review. It's hard to be objective about films you love. I think there is certainly a subtext about fascism and Italy's role in WW2. This would be a very interesting strand to develop and would make a fascinating essay in its own right. With regard to the two sadistic matriarchs I would say it's more a case of gender manipulation than confusion. A calculated act of duplicity which incorporates Catholicism (some would argue highly duplicitious itself), but the art is certainly a little confused!

  3. I'm in the mood for a giallo right now. I'll have to have a look for this one.

  4. Excellent write-up - some really interesting notions there that had never really occurred to me before.

    I'm not really much of a giallo fan, but I think "..Laughing Windows" is easily my favourite 'giallo-esque' film, from a serious-film-criticism point of view. A really strange and beautiful film on all counts.

    Of course, from a not-at-all-serious-film-criticism POV, I could happily watch giallos all day, and I'm enjoying your season of reviews Shawn.

  5. Thanks for stopping by Ben and I'm really happy you're enjoying this season of giallo films. It's a good distinction you make there about LAUGHING WINDOWS being 'giallo-esque', it is a very atypical example.

  6. I only saw this one for the first time last year, but it is certainly one of the better examples in the genre. Gorgeous cinematography, but as you mentioned Shaun, it is nice to see one such film tell a story first and not build itself around pre-planned shots and unnatural lighting ;)

  7. Easily my favorite of the half-dozen or so giallo I've seen as well.

  8. Excellent write-up of one of my favorite giallos - in fact, probably the only one that has truly unsettled me. It cultivates an excellent eerie mood and some of the imagery, without being gory, can only be described as grotesque. I knew I was in for something special right from the opening credits, which are truly disturbing.

    Quick unrelated question: What's the source of the image you use as the site's banner? It's such a striking frame, I'd love to see whatever film it's from.

  9. Thanks for the kind words Dan, I couldn't agree with you more about this fine film. The banner image is taken from Masaki Kobayashi's 1964 Japanese anthology film KWAIDAN. There are a couple of excellent editions of this film on the market...from Criterion in the US, and Eureka's 'Masters of Cinema' in the UK. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. I watched this film yesterday for the first time after remembering my professor of film studies talked about it as a masterpiece but I have never been a fan of the giallo genre, although I am Italian myself.
    I loved the film and your analysis but I am not sure I agree with the idea that this film lacks of stylistic concerns.
    Also, as you pointed out, the film is highly allegorical. in a way it could be read as a depiction of the failed attempt of Italy to come to terms with its fascist past and the ambiguous role of the catholic church in that dark moment of history.
    The actor who plays Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) also played the protagonist in the other great Italian film which deals fascist Italy in a oblique way, The Garden of the Finzi-Contini.
    In that movie, also shot near Ferrara (northern Italy, not southern) Capolicchio plays a Jew who is gradually being marginalised by the society who refused to help him.
    There's again an ancient grand house at the centre of it, with its secluded garden, which stands for the repression of sexual desires as well as of civil values...
    I could go on for ever, but anyway thanks for your beautiful review.


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