By Contributing Writer Jake Hunsinger
There’s something deeply uncomfortable about The House with the Laughing Windows. Scenes overstay their welcome, with long gaps of silence between dialogue and action that forces viewers to live in the unsettling backdrop of an Italian village. The world feels empty and desolate and the atmosphere emits an anxious humidity that makes you feel trapped. That was Italian film-maker Pupi Avati’s intention all along. Inspired by absurdist German art-house cinema, Avati’s horror films inhabit a surreal, uncanny world that you desperately want to leave alone.
We follow Stefano, an art conservator as he arrives in the sleepy village of Valli di Comacchio on assignment to restore a fresco of the Saint Sebastian in the local church. He was hired on the recommendation from his old friend, Antonio. From Antonio, Stefano learns about the fresco’s deceased artist Buono Legnani, known as the “Painter of Agony”. Antonio believes he is close to unraveling the mysterious disappearances of towns folk over the years, but is murdered before he can tell Stefano the whole story. Afterwards, Stefano is forced out of his hotel, forcing him to take up residence at a house previously owned by Legnani and his two sisters, now owned by a quadriplegic woman and her son Lidio.
Stefano learns what inspired Legnani’s paintings. He and his two sisters kidnapped, brutally murdered towns people and painted their final, gruesome moments. He investigates the murder of his friend as he continues to restore the painting. Upon it’s completion, it is vandalized. Stefano and his lover Francesca decide to leave, only for Coppola, the drunk cab driver to tell him about how he survived an attack is that Legnani’s sisters are the killers. Coppola brings him to the House with the Laughing windows and shows him where the sisters previous victim’s bodies are buried. Later, Coppola disappears and is later found drowned in the river.
Every step Stefano takes to uncover the mystery only leads to more left turns and dead ends, building the suspense. He wants to finish restoring the fresco and leave, but the mystery is too great to ignore. No questions are truly answered until the final moments of the film. Lidio is the son of one of Legnani’s sisters, who fakes her paralysis. He then kidnaps people for the sisters to murder. In the end, it is too late for Stefano to escape. Francesca is murdered and the towns people will not help him. He runs to the church, only to find that the Priest who has guided his investigation this whole time is the second Legnani sister.
The House with the Laughing Windows keeps the majority of the mystery from you, only giving you a little bit to keep your interest in the murders. Every bit of information that is revealed feels disconnected from the rest. It also feels purposeful, as if we are right next to Stefano walking into the sister’s trap.
Avati doesn’t want to scare you, he wants to unsettle you to your core. There are no simple scares in The House with the Laughing Windows. Instead, it capitalizes on a deep sense of dread and horror. When Francesca is captured by Lidio for the Legnani sisters, he sexually assaults her in an horrifically long scene. When the sisters later murder Lidio for his failures and for “tainting” Francesca, his murder is also a long and brutal scene. You don’t get any respite in this movie, only confusion and dread.
While not the most stylistically pleasing movie the UMass Dartmouth Italian Studies program has shown in their film series, it is the one that I can’t stop thinking about. To even think about this movie makes my skin crawl and I need to take a walk. This is also the type of horror movie I live for. Final Score: A-.