“My colours, my colours. They run hot in my veins, Sweet, my colours, so sweet. My colours are soft like the fall. Hot like fresh blood. The liquid falls down my arms. They enter people's minds. My colours they transcend me into darkness. My colours take me so far away, so far. My colours, they flow through my veins. My colours, my colours, they erase everything else. Purity, purity, my colours. My colours will paint death clearly. Death, I can tell. Death is coming. Death is here. Finally – Purification. Holding me at their mercy. Purify me. Death. My colours. I'm dying! I'm dying. Purify me! Purity.”
So proclaims an unidentified, manic voice-off over a slow-motion, sepia-tone image of a man slowly being tortured to death in a ritualistic manner.
The art of torture?
It's a powerful image that raises a number of questions for the subsequent narrative to resolve. Who is speaking? What is the relationship between their monologue and the image? What is the ontological status of all this - dream, memory, reality or some in-between state?
Whichever the case, the screen goes black and we cut to the more 'solid' and 'readable' arrival of a ferry across a flat, uniform landscape that would recall the Holland of Mill of the Stone Women (as another Italian horror film exploring the nexus of madness, art and death) were it not for the absence of iconic windmills. We soon learn that our location is the Po Valley in northern Italy and that the timeframe is not the early 20th century but its midpoint, some years after the end of the war and the fall of fascism.
The mayor, Solmi, and his drunken chauffer, Coppola.
On board the ferry is a young picture restorer, Stefano (Lino Capoliccihio), who has been brought to the village by its mayor, Solmi, to work on the fresco of St. Sebastian's martrydom that adorns one of the walls of its church in the hope that the restored piece, by the mysterious artist Legnani, might prove a tourist attraction.
A detail of the fresco; note that St Sebastian has been pierced with swords rather than the usual arrows
The fresco immediately strikes Stefano: “What an artist! To illustrate death so well!” The priest is, by contrast, somewhat more cynical, opining that the piece is too macabre and an unwanted distraction from the restoration of the church itself. “I discovered this crap was painted by the great Legnani. He left it unfinished, it needs to be restored. So now I have to start all over again. No peace for me!”
Another cut takes us to the village hotel, where Stefano has a room. By now the distinct rhythm of the editing is also becoming evident: we will abruptly cut from one scene to another without an establishing shot or after holding for an extra beat or two on some detail. It's a device that puts one on edge, and works well. The room opposite his is occupied by a woman, another outsider, whom the maid dismisses. “She should stay in her room, doing what she does.”
Some of the locals
Stefano receives a phone call, the first of many which always seem to reach him regardless of where he might be in the village at any given moment. The distinctive voice, perhaps the same one as we heard in the credits sequence, warns him to go away and not to touch the fresco.
Stefano goes to the village trattoria, populated by yet more of the local grotesques, for a meal. The woman from his hotel is also there. She makes a move to sit with him, but is intercepted by Stefano's friend Antonio, another outsider in the village and the one who got him the job.
Antonio is clearly still somewhat troubled but says that he is over his breakdown and that the change of air in the village has been beneficial. He also tells Stefano who the woman is, the local schoolteacher, and that she's a woman of questionable morals who's “been fucked by everyone,” putting an ambiguous slant on the maid's remarks earlier. If Stefano has any designs this way he had better be quick though, in case the woman is expelled.
Turning serious, Antonio asks if Stefano has seen the fresco and states his wish that his friend had waited to go see it with him instead. “I think I've discovered the strangest story ever.” Something stops Antonio from elaborating further, however, possibly the gaze of another of the locals. This prompts Stefano to voice his concerns once more. Antonio attempts to reassure him and indicates that he will call on Stefano later.
Back at the hotel, the schoolteacher and Stefano have tea before going to bed together, although the editing makes it unclear who initiated things and how far they went before concluding with the teacher's “If you feel lonely come back. You know the way.”
The next morning, Stefano meets Antonio as arranged. He starts to tell him about the “house with the laughing windows,” and elaborate further on the Langani's reputation as the “painter of agony,” intimating that the disturbing realism of his work may have been down to murder. The arrival of Solmi stops Antonio from explaining further.
En route to the church in Solmi's chauffered car, Stefano asks him about the painter. Solmi dismisses Antonio's account as bizarre notions, not to be taken seriously. The restorer is not reassured, however, also asking church handyman Lidio, a creepy Luciano Rossi junior type, who might have left the flowers by the fresco (having seen a woman on the opposite bank picking some identical looking ones as he and Antonio were talking) and if he knows anything about the threatening phone call.
We cut to the trattoria where Coppola (Gianni Cavina), Solmi's chauffer, being thrown out for drunkenness yet again threatens or rants: “You know that, if I wanted to... You know what I could do!”, prompting the owner, Poppi to come over to Stefano's table and reassure him:
“You are here for the painting?”
“How do you know?”
“Oh, everybody knows everything here. And thanks to Solmi, things improved a lot here. He's a brave man. Thought he's not tall, he's big. He has led the village to unity and prosperity.”
Poppi invites Stefano to see some of Legnani's paintings, all in the same distinctive style. One in particular catches the young man's attention: a female nude with a male head. According to Poppi his wife, who passes in the background and is the same one as Stefano saw picking flowers earlier, was the model, although he then contradicts himself by indicating that the artist, dominated by and afraid of women, never managed to find one to be his model.
A soft-focus scene, depicting the tortured artist at work ensues, followed by yet another phone call for Stefano. The caller is Antonio, needing to speak with him: “Don't mention my name. I need to speak with you. I must tell you the rest of the horrible story. I'm at the hotel, in your room.”
Stefano goes to meet his friend, but arrives to see him take a fatal dive out the hotel window. Looking up, a shadowy figure is apparent behind the curtain, while another unseen witness remarks that “someone pushed him from upstairs.” As a small crowd gathers, however, an old woman we see voices a different opinion: “Oh God! He took his own life! I knew it!!”
It is this view that prevails the next morning as Stefano talks with the local carabinieri, earlier seen helping expel Coppola from the trattoria. There is no motive for murder, and no evidence either, he explains. “Soon you'll understand. This is no place for a young man,” with all the young women of the village having left for the city...
A shot from early in the film and the concluding images, as another figure stops by the tree in front of the church
Perhaps the best route into La Casa dalle finestre che ridondo / The House with Laughing Windows is as the giallo equivalent of The Wicker Man, as films which are somewhat tangential to their genres and which will probably appeal to the kind of arthouse audience for whom a straight Argento or Hammer film is a touch low-class.
The problem that the genre aficionado may have, meanwhile, is the sense that Pupi Avati's 'superiority' to his material prevents him from fully embracing it; that he doesn't really believe in what he's doing except for at the level of an exercise in making a low-budget genre-type film.
Though technically the film is accomplished, and certainly far better directed than its British counterpart, the plotting is awkward.
The relationship of the locals to their shared secret and the outsiders in their midst simply doesn't convince. In The Wicker Man, we come to understand the islanders' logic: their crops have failed, they need a special sacrifice to appease the gods and the whole situation is contrived and orchestrated to achieve this end. Here, however, there's no comparable overriding sense of community, with too many outsiders - Coppola, the teacher - whose presence you feel would surely have become problematic long before Stefano arrives. Moreover, the mostri were/are themselves seemingly as prone to preying upon members of the community as anyone else.
With a more overtly fantastique approach this wouldn't itself matter, insofar as a cinematic logic of effect would take over from narrative logic of plausibility. Intriguingly, however, cinematic logic wasn't entirely the province of genre filmmakers, with Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs - from who I draw the notion - tellingly citing Alain Robe-Grillet's notion of literary generators in their formulation. Or, to put it another way, Avati's problem is again that his House is neither arthouse or grindhouse enough, too constrained by a safe, bourgeois notion of good taste.
Stefano finds the titular house
In this regard, one also notes his decidedly coy rather than exploitation- or art-film handling of the love scenes (i.e. Jess Franco = trash = pornography, Robe-Grillet = art = eroticism, as far as dominant assumptions go). While this is a trait that the film shares with Argento's early gialli, it cannot be readily explained away by reference to characters and situations as it can in, for example, the Giordani / Anna Terzi interlude in Cat o' Nine Tails. Fundamentally there's something wrong if Stefano's activities with the purportedly loose woman and her respectable replacement are depicted in exactly the same discrete, let's draw a veil over this manner. (It would be different if the two encounters had been given the same more explicit treatment, as a means of showing that, contrary to appearances, the behaviour of both women was identical.)
Yet another giallo tape recorder
Approaching the film as a giallo - here we can note the importance of a tape recorded aural fragment, a diary and a photograph as the story progresses, along with the McGuffin of the titular house itself - and looking for clues to the identity of the murderer(s) there really aren't that many suspects. Other aspects of the same character(s) presentation cheat a little too much, again suggesting that awkward in-between position, in this case between our full knowledge of the facts, suggesting suspense, and deliberately misleading us, suggesting shock.
Then again as the example of Psycho shows, even Hitchcock didn't always practice what he preached here, sometimes finding it necessary to reverse the implicit hierarchy of suspense as superior to shock. It's also to the filmmakers credit here that, in retrospect, the concluding revelation is somewhat foreshadowed if one looks and listens closely. One just wishes, however, they had had the courage to use this approach throughout and not, for instance, deployed a crude musical stinger as Lidio hands over a jerry can to an unidentified arm, instead letting his vague reply to Stefano's earlier question about its contents and a now you see it now you don't approach make the audience work through its potential significance that bit more.
All this probably makes it sound as though I didn't like The House with Laughing Windows. On the contrary, it has a lot of plus points: It's well directed, acted, shot, scored and edited, and has a strong atmosphere and sense of place. I think it's that because of all these plus points and the sense that it almost achieves greatless which made me that bit more aware of its arthouse and exploitation fence-sitting and, in the end, that overall impression of disingenuousness, of trading in genre cinema without honestly being committed to it in itself.
All the colours of the dark - Stefano enters a mysterious space
With a little bit more conviction, this could have been up there with Deep Red - a film where everything does come together, the non-sequiturs adding to the overriding impression of a shadowy world behind the everyday one - as one of the masterpieces of the giallo. As is, it's perhaps more a Don't Torture a Duckling for those who have a problem with Fulci's purportedly stereotypical, reactionary attitudes to southern Italians, or who are just uncomfortable admitting to themselves that the presence of a naked Barbara Bouchet or a gruesome spectacle of a priest having his face smashed in are a major part of the reason for watching...