The House with the Laughing Windows is a 1976 giallo film directed by Pupi Avati, and is the film in that director’s canon that has experienced the greatest visibility outside of Europe. The film follows Stefano (Lino Capolicchio), who has been invited to a small village in the Valli di Comacchio area in order to restore a fresco depicting the killing of Saint Sebastian, which is on the rotting wall of a church. The friend who helped him get the job, a conservatory scientist recovering from a breakdown of an undisclosed variety, becomes increasingly paranoid and warns Stefano that the village hides a dark secret, cryptically referring to a house with laughing windows. When this friend is killed before he can reveal the full truth, Stefano starts to wonder if all the threatening phone calls he’s been receiving are more than just pranks.
Stefano learns that the fresco’s original artist, Legnani, was considered to be mad, and the villagers imply that his two sisters were worse; Legnani had a tendency to portray his subjects, like Saint Sebastian, in states of torture, and it is rumored that the Legnani sisters would torture innocent travelers in order to provide their brother with models. Stefano reveals the faces of the two killers in the fresco and matches them to an old photo of the Legnanis, but no one seems interested in helping him except for Coppola (Gianni Cavina), the town drunk who takes him to the place where the Legnanis buried their victims (behind a house painted with large laughing mouths, hence the title). Everyone else treats Stefano’s concerns as unfounded, but events transpire to put him out of his hotel, which eventually lands him in a mostly-abandoned home occupied by Laura, a paralyzed woman who depends upon the assistance of Lidio (Pietro Brambilla), a mentally handicapped man who is also an acolyte at the church where Stefano is working. Eventually, Stefano goes to the police, but they are unable to find the evidence that Coppola previously showed to him.
Dejected, Stefano returns to the house where he is staying, only to discover that his love interest Francesca (Francesca Marciano) has been killed; when he brings the police around, all the evidence is gone. Still later, he discovers that the sisters of Legnani are alive and well and are attempting to bring their dead brother back to life by presenting sacrifices. Stefano barely escapes with his life, but for how long?
There’s a lot to unpack in this film, and I like that the entire village is in on the murders, a la the original Wicker Man or the modern classic Hot Fuzz, although the reason for why the consent to be complicit in the murders requires inspection. As is the case with many gialli from this era, there is a larger cultural context that I am unfamiliar with, and that knowledge may lend itself to a clearer interpretation of the film’s themes; one reviewer of the film refers in his analysis to a metaphorical attempt to transcend the Fascism of Italy’s past, especially in the wake of WWII.
This reading of the film is, no pun intended, foreign to me, and I can’t say that House illustrates this as well as, say, Your Vice is a Locked Room, which explicitly made mention of growing European solidarity and international trade. Still, a film should work in and of itself and succeed or fail on its own merits, and this one mostly succeeds. There is a sense of tension that permeates the proceedings, and the film is smart to open with a long diatribe from Legnani that encapsulates his artistic desires and his madness, as this sets the tone and keeps the maliciousness of the villain(s) in mind even when the scenery is idyllic and serene.
The one sticking point that I keep coming back to is the fact that (spoiler) the Legnani sisters are still alive, and the townsfolk seem content, for no immediately apparent reason, to let them continue their murderous machinations long after their brother has died. The best interpretation I can summon is that the villagers may be trying to cover the sins of the past (just as one of the sisters covers the revealed faces in the fresco with fresh clay to obscure their identity), which works well as a metaphor. The townsfolk cannot expose the current serial killings without revealing that they hid the Legnani’s crimes decades before. The final sequence, in which Stefano rides around the deserted village in a scene reminiscent of High Noon, pounding on doors and begging for help while the villagers ignore him with great difficulty, lends itself to this interpretation. They could stop this from happening, but they won’t, out of fear or guilt. The problem with this is that the villagers do not simply seal themselves off from the world until their past sin of allowing the Legnanis to reign in terror is interred with their bones; instead, they willingly accept newcomers like Stefano and Francesca into their midst with no warning.
The Legnanis terrorize by consent of the terrorized, and while that is an interesting twist on the genre, it doesn’t mix well with the giallo trappings. Overall, it’s a good horror film and deserves more than the modicum of attention that it has at present, but it falls short of greatness.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond