By 1976, giallo cinema had already reached its peak, and different postwar paranoia icons increasingly replaced the black-gloved killers of the past. Coming off a co-screenwriting turn (uncredited) for Pier Paolo Pasolini's controversial masterpiece Salò, director Pupi Avati brought Italy's social and political unrest from the period to the countryside for his community terror tale, The House with the Laughing Windows. The filmmaker wanted to channel the pastoral, Catholic fears from his childhood for his low-budget horror film, but the influence of previous rural-set gialli like Sergio Martino's Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling are present.
Avati introduces us to Stefano (Lino Capolicchio), who has been sent to an Italian village to restore a church fresco that depicts the death of Saint Sebastian — or so he thinks. A strange cast of characters greets him, including the mayor (the token little person with something to hide), a sadistic hotel steward, the resident nymphomaniac, an alcoholic driver, and a paraplegic woman confined to an isolated house where Stefano is forced to stay during his artistic assignment. The village's dark past is soon unveiled after a series of bizarre events and brutal murders. Stefano learns that the mural's creator was a tortured madman, known as the "painter of agony," who sought inspiration for his grisly paintings through some extreme methods. He uncovers a disturbing recording and secret journal that belonged to the artist, which only fuels his obsession with the town's hidden depravity. Stefano quickly realizes that the house with the laughing windows is harboring more than secrets.
The film builds a sense of dread from the very beginning. The opening credits feature hazy footage of a man strung up and stabbed repeatedly, and the eerie stillness of the remote setting — coupled with Avati's effective framing — adds to the growing unease. The associations between art and death, and illusion and reality, are emphasized throughout. In the dreamworld, a house is usually a symbol of our own bodies, and the bodies of Avati's film endure great suffering (immolation and rape included). But the director doesn't use gory corpses to freak us out. He relies on disembodied scares instead: footsteps, voices, breath, creaking, and shadows. The minimal score inadvertently adds to the disquiet (composer Amedeo Tommasi was limited by the low budget and lack of equipment). The heady visual excess of previous gialli is absent, but there are a number of surreal images that linger — like a fridge full of live snails Stefano's lover Francesca tries to rescue (even though refrigerating snails induces hibernation) and a funeral scene in which the maniacal caretaker has thrust an animal inside the casket to devour the corpse. And the house with the "laughing" windows, of course.
Those who live for atmospheric chills and the slow-burning thrills of movies like Don't Look Now will appreciate The House with the Laughing Windows. If Avati's quiet brand of horror satisfies, be sure to check out his 1983 film Zeder (aka Revenge of the Dead), which is an unusual departure from the typical Italian zombie fare, focusing on mystery and the supernatural instead.