Made in 1976 The House With Laughing Windows may sound like a silly title for a movie but believe me there is no humour in this beautiful looking horror tale that has become one of the most acclaimed Italian horror thrillers in history. While low on the gore front La Casa dalle finestre che ridono to use its proper title is at times so disturbing that it literally trounces on the entire American horror output for this sort of movie.
Starting as it means to go on the movie opens with a naked man hanging from a ceiling while knives are seen repeatedly launching into his face and body, the camera lens sepia in its colour. While I assume the change to sepia was designed to cut down on the blood side, this trick actually makes the movie look far worse, and offers a pretty horrific opening, in fact possibly one of the most horrific openings of any movie. This little addition is not helped by the creepy voice of Bruno Legnani (Tonino Corazzari) recounting in an almost spellbinding way how he loves painting the colours of yellow, the yellow of his blood.
Into this mad world comes Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) an artist called to a small island town in the middle of the country in which the church has a fresco featuring the slaughter of Saint Sebastian, the fresco has remained unfinished for many years. The original artist the aforementioned Legnani shrouded in mystery, is he alive, is he dead, and what on earth happened.
Having gone from one extreme to another the vicious stabbing at the start of the movie is followed up by Stefano's arrival to a beautifully romantic theme by composer Amedeo Tommasi, as his ferry transports he and several others including Francesca (Francesca Marciano) into this visually stunning isle. This stark contrast is one of many that viewers will encounter on their journey through this movie.
Romanticising about the movie is all well and good but it's time to get to the heart of the matter, the story is so full that the hour and forty minutes of storytelling are only just enough; into this time-frame director/writer Pupi Avanti must fit a love story, a mystery about a woman confined to a bed, a mysterious tape recording, disappearances, a vicious and brutal murder, a religious prophecy, family secrets long since forgotten, a strange unwritten mystery that each and every one of the town's residents know about but will not reveal to outsiders, and of course a house with laughing windows.
I was really taken aback by this movie, something I had delayed watching for many years; I could literally kick myself for waiting so long to enjoy this thing of great beauty and of great horror. The Italian horror classics such as Suspiria, Deep Red, Who Saw Her Die? All have these phenomenal stories, but The House With Laughing Windows is in a different ballpark to even those, I was captivated by the movie which seems to stand alone in this genre.
What is most captivating about the movie are the many secrets hidden right under your nose from the offset, one of the most mortifying secrets so abundantly obvious that not only do you not see it, when you clearly do see it your left with your mouth wide open unable to properly take on what you have seen.
The movie is filled with bizarre characters the creepy Lidio (Pietro Brambilla) who you realise is wrong from the movies offset seems to get more and more disturbing as the movie progresses, working as a sort of altar boy in the church he seems to be more in league with Satan than anything in gods world, placing unspecified animals in coffins to devour the dead rather than letting them simply rot in the ground. Coppola (Gianni Cavina) is the town drunk who knows all the answers but nobody will talk to him because of his pretty much drunken state, although as an outsider watching he seems perfectly sober to me most of the time. Mayor Solmi (Bob Tonelli) plays a striking resemblance to Fantasy Islands Tattoo (Herve Villachez), dressed in his white suit walking mysteriously round the town carrying a cane he clearly does not need. And then there is the poor woman bed ridden in a house nobody visits, a woman who endures the movie credited simply with the title Paraplegic Woman (Pina Borione), and this kindly woman seems strangely ostracised by the town.
When you first see Stefano he does not come across as your normal movie hero, seemingly distant, his attitude is rather off the cuff, as are his morals hoping into bed with the soon to depart school mistress who disappears rather quickly in the movie. Bearded and a bit shifty looking (not saying everyone with a beard looks shifty) he soon endears himself to the audience as he woes the newly arrived school mistress Francesca who looks like she should still be in school herself.
The story is magnificently weaved with moments of pure genius, the story of the fresco for example, one of the ugliest things you might ever see on a church wall certainly gives a few moments of shock. While various red herrings turn out to deliver nothing, but have you guessing to the very end, for me there is nothing better than a red herring (false storyline for those unfamiliar with the term) that has the essence of leading somewhere but takes you nowhere, and this is what the movies all about, defying your every expectation.
One more word on the movies score, and that is how un-contrasting it is with the rest of the movie, sounding more like something from a romantic drama than a horror movie of this nature, it's a really false heads up to the sort of horror the movie ultimately delivers, and this falseness carries on until the movies final moments.
If you are the UK, The House With Laughing Windows is released on DVD on 19th of November, on the Shameless label. Purchase it from Amazon by clicking the link below.