This disturbing, unnerving and little-seen Italian horror film is not your typical Giallo/slasher. Opening with a graphic depiction of a bound man being stabbed to death by unseen figures while a voice hisses “My colors they run hot in my veins…they transcend me into darkness…they erase everything else. My colors will paint death clearly” this film is clearly not from the Fulci/Bava school of Italian horror movies. With more of a Gothic feel to it, “The House with Laughing Windows” tells the story of a young art historian, Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) who is summoned to a small village to restore a macabre painting of the death of St. Sebastian done by the famous local artist, Bruno Legnani, within the village church. Legnani, who has apparently disappeared years ago, is also known as “The Painter of Agonies”, an ominous title. At first, all seems well although some of the villagers are a bit strange: the dwarf businessman who hired Stefano, a woman who has a collection of other bizarre works by Legnani, the trampy schoolteacher, the alcoholic chauffeur, a mysterious veiled woman who goes around collecting wildflowers and a priest who seems too eager to share the church’s history. And add to that Stefano’s friend, Antonio (Giulio Pizzirani), who recommended him for the job but tries to warn him of things and wants to take him to a “house with odd windows” although he says he may still be suffering from a recent nervous breakdown. Also a series of mysterious phone calls warning Stefano to leave the painting alone and the puzzle is magnified.
When he first arrives in the village, he stays at the local inn but after the apparent “suicide” of Antonio, the innkeeper suddenly says she has had to rent Stefano’s room to an important “person” and that other arrangements must be made. These arrangements, taken care of by the priest, take Stefano to a mysterious villa where the only other occupant is an apparently paralyzed old woman. Coppola (Gianni Cavina), the chauffeur, takes over for Stefano’s friend in trying to unravel the weirdness going on around the village and the sense of dread which imbues this film grows stronger. The old woman at the villa tell Stefano that the silence of the place is “unbearable” and yet Stefano’s first night there is full of strange, muffled noises that seem to be coming from within the very walls of the villa. He next discovers, in a large room on the top floor of the villa, a tape recorder, which is apparently the voice of Legnani himself, hissing and murmuring about “my colors…my colors…”
Stefano returns to the village to seek solace with the schoolteacher he had a brief fling with at the beginning of the film but she has disappeared, replaced by a young woman, Francesca (Francesca Marciano) who agrees to stay at the villa with Stefano. Slowly, Stefano unravels the horrifying truth about Legnani and his sisters and the House with Laughing Windows, where Legnani lived with the two spinsters.
The film moves slowly but that definitely works in its favor as it helps increase the dread that slowly creeps up on the viewer. You know something is WRONG with this place and the people who live there but what is the mystery and who is behind it? Also, the cinematography is interesting as most of the shots are in bright sunshine, not the ominous, brooding storm clouds one would expect to hover over such a film. The sound design is ominous as well as every sound, be it a cat wailing or the night wind wheezing like an old woman or the creak and groans of an old house could portend something horrible. This sense of unease and paranoia actually make “House” more of a cousin to Polanski’s “The Tenant” or Nicholas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now”.
If you have only seen Italian films by more “known” directors like Fulci, Bava or Argento you really should give Avanti’s little-known gem a look. There are images in it which will haunt your nightmares for a long time afterwards.