Welcome To The House Of Fun… THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS Reviewed

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DVD. Region 2. Shameless. 18

A former Argento collaborator (he worked on the screenplay of Deep Red), Giuseppe (Pupi) Avati has, when he can take time out from directing such internationally acclaimed Arthouse efforts as Noi Tre / We Three (1984) and Regalo Di Natale / The Christmas Present (1986), managed to  rack up an impressive secret horror history which compares favourably with that of the divine Dario, in terms of quality if not quantity. The Bolognese director’s outings in the horror genre include Zeder – Voices From Beyond (1983), a paranoid illuminati-type thriller involving the resuscitation of the dead which exerted a major, unacknowledged influence over Mary Lambert’s 1989 effort Pet Cemetery (officially a Stephen King adaptation) and another period saga of occultism, L’Arcano Incantatory (“The Arcane Enchanter”, 1996.)

Enhancing his paura pedigree no end, Avati’s Bordella (“House Of Pleasure For Women”, 1976) featured an “invisible man” sequence that was supervised by Italian horror godfather Mario Bava and Avati co-wrote Macabre (1980), the directorial debut of Bava’s son Lamberto. He even chipped in on the writing of Lucio Fulci’s political satire Dracula In Brianza (1975.)

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Avati’s greatest horror achievement The House With Laughing Windows (1976, the maiden effort from AMA productions, a company formed by Avati with his brother, producer and frequent script collaborator, Antonio.) bears closer comparison though with Fulci’s 1972 giallo masterpiece Don’t Torture A Duckling in its anti-clericism and its portrayal of rural retardation, moral degeneracy, superstition and  hypocrisy. Its allegorical condemnation of amnesia regarding collaboration with the Nazis makes for an interesting exercise in “compare and contrast” with Pasolini’s altogether more explicit treatment of the subject in his notorious Salo – 120 Days Of Sodom (1975)… which, of course, Avati also had a hand in writing!

Impatient with Roman imperialism, Avati has always been keen to shoot movies in his beloved homeland though THWLW is no glossy PR job: “The peasant culture in which I grew up is still very strong in Emilia Romagna…” Avati once told me… “I was brought up on terrifying fairy tales and a religiosity which always emphasised the terrible penalties for sin. I was brought up in a state of fear, and these fears are acknowledged in my work. They have shaped my imagination. I have tried to portray the dark side of my homeland, the secret side which doesn’t appear in the tourist brochures.”

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Although Avati believes it  was in Zeder that he “best captured this unofficial side of The Riviera Romagnola”, there is an almost palpable sense of degeneracy and decay pervading The House With Laughing Windows, an overwhelmingly oppressive effort. The sepia-tinted titles sequence, in which a trussed, suspended individual is stabbed and tortured by two concealed fiigures, immediately sets never on edge, its disturbing impact enhanced no end by the accompanying voice over from some clearly deranged individual, free associating about colours, syphilis, contamination, purification and death. This sequence comes closer to the essence of madness than any amount of gurning and hammy declamation ever could. Sir Anthony Hopkins, please take note…

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The viewer has hardly had a chance to regain his composure before artist Stefano (Lino Capolicchio, a favoured lead in Avati’s art house offerings though readers might recall him more readily from sundry Crime Slime efforts and Antonio Bido’s 1978 giallo effort Blood Stained Shadow / Solamente Nero… which also has a dodgy priest angle) is welcomed to a creepy Emilian backwater by its dwarf Mayor (Avati clearly has a non-PC thing about  vertically challenged individuals, as evidenced from as early as his second feature Balsamus L’Uomo Di Satana aka Blood Relations, 1970 ) to restore a flaky church fresco of St Sebastian being martyred by two obscure figures, their faces rotted away by years of neglect. Anybody who’s seen Don’t Look Now (1973), Massimo Dallaman’s The Cursed Medallion (1975) or Michele Soavi’s The Church (1989) might well have worked out by now that picture restorers in Italy have a similar life expectancy to Battle Of Britain pilots!

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Made to feel distinctly unwelcome and plagued from anonymous threats by somebody who wants the fresco left exactly as it is, Stefano gradually works out that the artist Buono Legnani (known as “the painter of agonies” due to his penchant for studies of subjects in extremis) liked to paint from life (or from “just about still alive”), his sisters torturing innocent victims as he worked at his easel so that he could better capture the exact moment of death (definite shades of Peeping Tom here). Legnani is now himself dead (not entirely unconnected with him setting fire to himself) and dunked in a vat of formaldehyde (his ill-preserved remains recalling the walled-up patriarch in the aforementioned Deep Red) by his loony siblings, who seem loath to give up their work… and guess who they want to model for them now! Just when it looks like the hapless restorer has escaped, his fate is sealed by one of the most outrageous transvestite revelations in film history (The Crying Game doesn’t even get a look in!)

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A masterpiece of paranoid pasta paura in the tradition of Aldo Lado’s Short Night Of The Glass Dolls (1971) and Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume Of The Lady In Black (1974) and among the greatest horror offerings from Italy or indeed anywhere in the world, THWLW was a middling domestic success but  went largely unknown in English speaking markets for decades, its cult status among the cognoscenti sustained by word of mouth, a rave review in Phil Hardy’s Aurum Horror Encyclopaedia and nth generation bootleg video dubs. “It didn’t get much overseas distribution because of the inadequacy of our organisation then”, admits Avati, “our fault entirely.” The time was long overdue to put this right….

Shameless’ sister label Noveaux had a not particularly great-looking R2 disc out prior to this “Shameless Fan Edition”, in which the film’s restoration was lovingly supervised by its director, revealing in the process no murdering transvestite priests but an unalloyed masterpiece of terror and suspense in all its glory. The audio option of 5.1 Italian language with English subtitles really puts  you there on the The Riviera Romagnola… just watch your step, OK?

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Extras include a trailer (also those for other Shameless releases) and an exclusive, revealing Avati interview in which he talks about the influence of his own country upbringing, such cinematic antecedents as Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) and the dark shadows cast by WWII. The scenes in which the local authorities, one by one, wash their hands of responsibility for Stefano’s fate, might well remind you of nothing so much as the closing shot and final line in another Pasolini allegory of fascism, 1969’s Porcile…

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“Shhh… don’t say anything to anybody!”

 

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